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Getting to know Ivan Stevic
By Staff
Date: 6/7/2007
Getting to know Ivan Stevic

Get the info directly from Serbian National Champion Ivan Stevic, from Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team as he recounts his experiences at the Lancaster race that went from scary to hilarious. He also shares insights about his background as an amateur rider in Italy and his move to the United States of America.

by Lyne Lamoureux

Serbian National Champion Ivan Stevic of Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team

I'm not only racing, I'm planning to win - Ivan Stevic

Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Stevic raced in his home country as a junior, participated in two World Championships, and won the Under-23 National Championships in both 2001 and 2002. In 2000, he moved to Italy where he raced for five years, collecting more than 20 career victories as an amateur. In 2005, Stevic moved to the USA and joined Aerospace Engineering-VMG for his first year as a professional. In 2006, he joined the new Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team and continued his winning ways with 13 top-three finishes, and took home the Serbian Champion jersey. He continued strong in 2007 with 9 top-three finishes and winning a stage at the Tour de Georgia and at Tri-Peaks Challenge.

Before the 85-mile (136.7 km) Commerce Bank Triple Crown of Cycling- Tom Bamford Lancaster Classic race even reached its halfway point, Ivan Stevic (Toyota-United) was sitting on the side of the road, experiencing a problem with his breathing. An ambulance was called and the Serbian National Champion was taken to the hospital. An examination revealed that Stevic suffered from cramping in his esophagus – the tube through which food passes from the pharynx to the stomach.

We caught up with Ivan after his return from the hospital to get the full story on the 'incident' and get the know his interesting history from Belgrade to Italy to America.

Lyne: What happened during the Lancaster race that forced you stop and ended up in the hospital?

Ivan: Now thinking back, it's a funny story, it was nothing. But at the moment I got scared and I panicked, and I wanted to go to the hospital to check everything because it didn't look good. I'm glad I did it at the end because you never know. We're not computers, it's good to be careful about your body. Basically I was getting food in the race, having a small panini that my soigneur made, and I drank water right after it. It (the panini) got stuck in my throat down deep and my body reacted in a strange way, the muscles in that area cramping, and so I didn't have enough air going through to my lungs so I had this kind of strange pain in my chest, and I got scared and I panicked and thanks to that, my throat got so dry that I couldn't catch air and I was loosing power in my legs.

When I got to the hospital, I explained to the doctor what happened and he wanted to do blood tests, to test the heart, especially with the pain in the chest that I had. So they did a blood test and I had a level of proteins that come from the muscle heart that was higher than normal. So the doctor said that usually when it's high, it means that it's a small heart attack. But knowing that we're cyclists, it's normal but he didn't know that. It's really normal, it's supposed to be like that, our heart is under big stress during the race so it's normal that we have higher level of that protein in our blood. But that doctor did not know so he scared me badly with that information and he wanted to do another test after 10 hours. And I had to stay in the hospital the whole time and they plugged me to a machine that was checking my heart and they were checking my blood pressure every few hours and I stayed the night in the hospital without sleeping.

So after that, the other doctor came and basically was laughing because he knew that the level of protein is normal, so I said 'wait wait the other doctor said that it is not normal' and I didn't know what to think but they did a check online and they found reports on tests done on cyclists and that level is normal. I meant I spent the whole time is some kind of fear that there was something really, really wrong with my body and it wasn't the case.

Lyne: That does sound scary, nothing funny about it at all.

Ivan: (laughing) To leave the hospital, I had to do the stress test for my heart and they didn't have a bike so I have to run for 18 minutes IN MY SOCKS which gave me blisters on my feet and my legs are sore and I had my left knee sore from running I don't remember the last time I ran more than one minute so that is the funny part of the story. They did all the tests, scans that you can have for checking your heart and lungs, they did every check and it was more than good.

The really funny part... At 5:30 in the morning, I finally was getting to sleep because my brain was too tired from everything and I was catching some nice dreams. After 10 minutes, two nurses come into my room in a panic and asking me if I'm okay and I was totally okay. (Laughing) The reason why they came is that the floor that I was staying had an average age of people of sixty-five to seventy years old and everybody had heart rate of seventy to eighty. And I have a rate of around thirty-five so they got scared because they didn't know who was the room, so they thought they were loosing somebody so they woke me up and I went why? Why? Finally I was getting a few hours of sleep!!

Now it's funny. I felt bad that I scared a lot of people around me and it was really nice that so many people called me asking me how I was doing. I didn't have my cell phone in the hospital so nobody knew what was going on. When I left the hospital, I got so many calls, I had to answer so many emails. So now it's funny, but I really had a rough night in the hospital, I hate hospitals. But I have to say that people in the hospital were really nice, it's a really good hospital. I'm glad that all the results are out, it was kind of cool because they checked my blood and I could see the levels of minerals and vitamins in my body and everything was so good, all the results are really good. Everything checked is more than good, so my body is more than in a good shape.

Ivan Stevic winner of Stage 2 of the Tour de Georgia 2007
Photo c. Lyne Lamoureux

Lyne: Let's take a step back. You've had a great season so far in 2007 which started very early this year with California. Did you make any changes to your training?

Ivan: I made big changes with respect to other years, and I'm planning to make even bigger changes next year to be ready for California. This year, I got sick a week before California, and I got well one or two days before the race, but I didn't want to take a risk to my health. But next year I'm going start even earlier and maybe do some races before California. I made a lot of changes, I actually rode my bike this winter (laughing) everybody was saying that my break was too long. Next year I would like to change that and try to be good in February.

Lyne: How did you get into cycling in Serbia?

Ivan: It was kind of funny. I never had information about road cycling, I knew something about mountain bike from the television. My friend from elementary school was doing cycling and called me to join him and he said 'come with me, it's a bunch of fun guys, it's a lot of older guys'. You know when you're 15 or 16 old, you want to hang out with older guys, so I ended up there and training with them. I'm pretty happy I did that. I never did anything before cycling, I never practiced other sports, it was everything and nothing as I never got involved in something that I liked so much.

Lyne: Not even football (soccer)?

Ivan: No I'm not a soccer fan, coming from Europe and everybody there is crazy about soccer but I'm not. I prefer basketball. In Serbia, we have a really good national team and a really good league too. I like the NBA, it's more fun than anything else, it's fast and dynamic and you never know who's going to win.

Lyne: Then you moved to Italy to race on an amateur team for 5 years. How did you get hooked up with an Italian team?

Ivan: I did a race in the area with the Serbia national team, and this Italian team was there. I was really good and they asked me if I wanted to join them in Italy and so I went there. It was good but it was hard to get to the pro teams from the amateur team because there are many riders there and it was pretty bad period for cycling. It was hard to get to the professional team for foreigners, just too many riders

Lyne: How did you survive racing as an amateur for that time?

Ivan: Amateur teams in Italy are basically better organized than most of the teams in the US. I had a room paid in a hotel for a full year, I had lunch and diner paid at a restaurant for the whole time and I had a salary. Not huge money but as long as you have a place to say and food to eat it makes it easier. It is a different way of doing things there. If I didn't have a hotel room, they rented a big house so that everybody is together, and the whole year looks like a training camp. You spend the time at home but usually it's the whole team and you go to races from there, it's totally different than here.

There are a lot of teams, it's more than 200 amateur teams in Italy, with maybe 2000 amateurs so it's really hard. They actually have a limit for every race to 200 guys, if not there would have more that 200 riders at the start of every race. I did once a race that is very famous in Italy that had 497 guys at the start and only 40 guys finished. Every race, it is hard to get a huge sprint, and even it's a huge sprint, it's a small field. It's very hard amateur racing there and in Spain too. The guys that go from here to go do amateur racing in Italy, return and they say they never want to go back.

Lyne: What are your best memories from those years?

Ivan: Everything, I had really good time. I still have friends there. Every winter I go there to be with my friends and I'm still in really good connection with my ex sport director, it's really, really nice people there. There are two families there I'm still friends with, I go see them every winter and they come to Serbia to see me, That's the best, friendships that last forever.

Lyne: After five years in Italy, you moved to the US with Aerospace Engineering-VMG; how did that happen?

Ivan: I actually came here to discover the United States, I didn't come to build a new career. I'd never been in the USA and I was on the edge of quitting cycling because it was hard, you get to be twenty-five or twenty-size in Italy and either you become pro or you quit cycling. That's the bad side of cycling there.

I was actually thinking a lot about quitting during the winter of 2004-2005. Then I met my friend Radisa Cubric for coffee in Belgrade. He used to race in the US, he had a really good career here, he used to race with George Hincapie and Bobby Julich and all these guys, he told me come to USA and discover and race with no pressure. He was building a half American, half Serbian team here and they told me that they were going to travel a lot to South America and I liked the idea and I just came. I did the first race in the Dominican Republic and I liked it, and I just decided to come to the USA. I adapted pretty fast. I was a bit surprised, but it took only two to three weeks for my first win which I wasn't expecting at all. The first year was so different from everything that I had in my life. I'm glad I did it with a small team, with host housing, I had a chance to meet new people, new friends, to see how people live as it's totally different than what I had seen on tv, I'm really glad i did it.

I spent about four months maybe in the USA the first year but in that time I made good things happen, and got a contract from Toyota and here I am. It's really good, I'm really happy. It changed my life totally. I felt like I was born again coming here, it changed everything the way of racing, people around me, the culture, everything was so new to me.

Lyne: Did you have any trouble adapting to the American style of racing especially criteriums?

Ivan: No I kind of like it, in Italy you don't have chance to do that many crits. It was nice to do something different. (laughing). Only one hour of pain is good.

Lyne: Then you joined the newly formed Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team; how did that connection get made?

Ivan: I made friends with Ivan on 2005, when he was racing on HealthNet, the number one team at that time, and it was the biggest enemy of every rider in the USA. I met him the first time in the Dominican Republic and I didn't know which team he was racing with which I discovered when I came to the USA. He called me and told me 'look there is a new team building now and it's going to be a big thing'. He put into contact with Harm (Jansen) & Sean (Tucker) and thanks to him I'm here. One of the guys that made me take my decision right away was Frankie Andrieu who is a really good friend of Radisa my ex-sport director, Radisa spoke with him and told me that it was a one chance in a life, it was going to be a big team.

Lyne: This is your second year on the team, how has the atmosphere changed?

Ivan: For sure it's different because some guys left and we don't have the Spanish mafia anymore, now Aussies rule the team so it's different. (laughing) I like it. I've known Sully (Sean Sullivan) for a long time... back in 2002 from racing in Europe, and I was so happy to see him on the team, it's really good. Henk is great guy. Caleb, I knew he was going to be good to be on team. Last year, I took every gram of energy to get him on the team because I like so much as a rider and thanks to him, I won the stage in Georgia. It looks like I did a good thing. It was... on that stage, more than a great job, he did everything perfectly, without me saying anything to him, he did everything by himself ...he just brought me to my win, it was a big big part, his part. I mean the the whole team worked together but his part was a big, big part at the end, he did everything.

Caleb Manion and Ivan Stevic at Stage 2 of the Tour de Georgia
Photo c. Lyne Lamoureux

Lyne: Who on the team has influenced you the most?

Ivan: That's Henk's part. So much experience, Henk is an amazing rider, he sees the race from every angle, only that a small number of people can do that. He knows what to do. We almost did it at CSC Invitational, thanks to him, he gave me a good leadout but I made a mistake at the end. But without that mistake of taking that corner on the inside, I was winning the race no doubt there He has such good timing and he always ready to help you, to give you good advice about training and what to do and how to do this race and how to make plans for your season. He has so much experience so it's really good to have him on the team so you do everything better. He's good for the morale of the team, he brings positive energy.

Henk Vogels and Ivan Stevic of Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team at CSC Invitational 2007
Copyright Celia Cole, all rights reserved.

Lyne: Do you miss racing in Europe?

Ivan: I'm happy here because cycling in the USA is growing and the races are getting better and better, with California & Georgia & Philly week. The racing here brings new things every year , but like every rider I would like to go back to race in Europe.... I would like to go back with this team to do the big races in Europe. I would like to see this team becoming a Protour team and with this team, go to the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia, that would be a perfect thing I think. It's not only the Tour, or the Giro in Europe, it's all the other races, the classic races in Belgium, Holland, France, Italy.

Lyne: Would you like to race on cobblestones?

Ivan: Maybe not Paris-Roubaix, but all other classics. Henk says that I can be good on those races and I trust him.

Lyne: What race have you not done yet that you really look forwards to doing?

Ivan: First I would like to do every race then I can have a better decision about winning something. I need experience all those races but it's not enough to do it only once. I would like to do those races and then during every race, I could say this race maybe i can do good in the future, and this one no.

Lyne: What race do you look back fondly on?

Ivan: The race in San Francisco. I'm really sad that they are not making it happen anymore,that was something special. It is a really big loss for American cycling not having that race anymore. I'm happy that the town of Philly and the mayor put every gram of energy to make this week happen, this Philly week, because it's really important. I would like to see the town of San Francisco do the same thing. Last year Philly lost sponsors and the mayor found the money. It's really good that this Philly week is still on, and I would like to see San Francisco come back. When I was in Europe racing, every European was talking about the races in SF and Philly, those were two races that everybody was talking about. Especially San Francisco, because it was so different, so many people come to see the race, the city is one of the most beautiful city in the USA, the energy that it brings and when you have on the course, 400 to 500 thousand people, it's a special feeling, you feel like you are doing Worlds or something like that.

Lyne: I hear that you love to cook, what is the favorite meal to make?

Ivan: I don't have like a favorite thing, I like to discover, to play with the things that I have in the kitchen because I don't always have all the time to go buy groceries. I'm glad that we have the big bus in almost every big race and we have a chance to cook, it's really better that going to the restaurant. It's less stressful than having to wait in line to get the table, then wait for the food, and at the end to not be happy with the food and then you have to pay.

Lyne: What's next after Philly week?

Ivan: I'm flying to South Africa, to Cape Town and then flying back to Europe to do the Nationals on the first week of July and hopefully to get a nice week off. I'm going to need a good break then. It's been a long because I didn't take a break at all. I'm hoping to do everything good until then and have a good week and come back strong.

Good luck and watch those paninis.

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