Thomas De Gendt won the Stelvio stage of the Giro with an bold long-range attack. He spoke to Cycle Sport for the June edition of the magazine.
Words by Gregor Brown
Saturday May 26, 2012. Article first published in CS June 2012
Thomas De Gendt, like many professional cyclists, is looking forward to Saturday, June 30, the day of the first stage of the Tour de France. But De Gendt has his own reasons to be happy: on that day, the Belgian will marry his girlfriend.
“The team directors told me after last year’s Tour that it might be a problem that I was getting married on that day,” explains De Gendt. “I said, ‘Too bad. Everything is ordered, everything is set for that date. I can’t move it.’”
The couple had scheduled the day two years ago, long before Tour Director Christian Prudhomme moved the race forward to accommodate the Olympics. At the time, De Gendt was still racing for second division team Topsport Vlaanderen and had little chance of riding the Tour de France.
It would not have been an issue if he had not joined Vacansoleil last year and then performed so well. The team extended his contract one more year, through 2013, and upped his salary. The management considers him one of its stars, an animator. Vacansoleil has no overall contender, so the team would prefer it if he was on the start ramp in Liège.
De Gendt said no, however. He is committed to his girlfriend, Evelyn Tuytens.
“The Tour de France is a little harder. It is as if everyone had too much coffee at the Tour,” he says. “I told the team, I can race the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España to get more experience in the Grand Tours.”
He looks at me briefly and then his eyes wonder around the room or study the floor, as they did for most of the interview. He just returned from training, his hair is gelled to a point and his beard has about two day’s growth.
He looks over and says, “I’ll be back for the Tour in 2013.”
De Gendt is one of those riders who always seems to be in a break, off the front of a race. He won a stage and took the leader’s jersey in Paris-Nice last year, then won another stage in the same race this year.
He had a string of top ten places and a win in the Circuit de Lorraine, but he enjoyed good form in midsummer, with a mountain stage win in the Tour of Switzerland. After a mediocre Tour, he produced an astonishing turnaround in form for the final few days – he was sixth at Alpe d’Huez in the same group as Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers, then fourth in the Grenoble time trial. Given that the Tour de France was essentially being fought out on these two days, these results are striking.
“I don’t really know what type of rider I am,” he says. “I can do all things. I have no specialtiy, I am an all-rounder. I can climb, I can sprint, I can time trial… I can do it all pretty well, but nothing very well.”
“He escaped a few times in the Tour de France and in Paris Nice – it’s unbelievable how strong he is. He can ride as fast as the whole peloton,” says Vacansoleil team manager Michel Cornelisse. “When he’s gone they can ride with 10 riders behind, but if he has a good day, no one can follow.”
Cornelisse is partly referring to the Tour of Switzerland stage last year to Serfaus, Austria, where De Gendt attacked from 25 kilometres out. The group was initially disorganised in its chase, but even when Andy Schleck attacked he was unable to catch De Gendt. His pursuit continued over eight kilometres, but De Gendt held him off by half a minute.
“I don’t think anyone expected I could do that,” De Gendt says. “It was the hardest stage of the whole race. I was very frightened before the stage because I thought maybe they will go so fast on the first mountain and I will lose contact. I had the best legs that day, though.
“Schleck attacked, but the time gap remained the same. You can’t describe it because you know he is there to train for the Tour de France, which starts two weeks later. I thought, ‘How is this possible?’ It felt surreal that I could beat Andy Schleck on the climb. Maybe it will only happen once, but I did it.”
He had trained at altitude on the Stelvio Pass before the race and then returned home to Semmerzake, near Ghent, to sleep in a high-altitude tent. He is proud of his achievement, but admits that had it been the other way around he would not have been able ride fast enough to catch Schleck.
Training in Italy and racing up Austrian passes are a long way from where De Gendt started. He used to ride the flat roads along the canal from Ghent to Oudenaarde with a 25-euro bike. His father paid the annual rental fee from a bike club because his son showed interest in the sport.
“After one year, I was sold on it and my dad bought me a bike,” Thomas De Gendt says. “I thought, ‘I want to do this for life.’”
As an amateur, he raced cyclo-cross. He showed early climbing talent, winning the Koppenberg Cross in Oudenaarde, which covers the cobbled climb used in the Tour of Flanders every lap.
“At a certain age you have to choose between the road or cyclo-cross,” he says. “The decision was easy because I was winning more on the road.”
His older brother Jurgen inspired him and remains his biggest supporter. Jurgen raced, but never made it to the professional level. Thomas, even at five years old, would travel to watch him race.
“I said to myself at the time, ‘I want to do this when I grow up.’ I just loved racing.”
He raced for Davo, a feeder team for Unibet and now Lotto-Belisol. After a successful 2008 season, he turned professional with Topsport Vlaanderen.
Racing as an amateur not only prepared him for professional life, but it also gave him a chance to meet future wife Evelyn. At the 2006 under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège he was dropped and ready to give up. On the La Redoute, Davy, a friend and rival cyclist in his group spotted his family’s mobile home on the side of the road.
“He said, ‘I’m stopping,’ and asked me if I want to join him.” It was cold and De Gendt was tired. He nodded his head and abandoned with Davy.
“Inside the mobile home it was warm and his sister Evelyn was in there waiting.”
The race was on May 1 and they were officially a couple two months later, on July 1.
“We marry on 30 June,” he adds. “It will be exactly six years to together.”
The Tour de France peloton will roll away from Liège on July 1 while the newly weds will roll away for a honeymoon. They would not have it any other way.
“My birthday is on November 6, my girlfriend’s is on March 30, so 6, 30, or June 30,” De Gendt explains. “The first Saturday available on June 30 was this year, the next one was in 2016 or 2018, so we thought that we better get married now. One month after we decided, Christian Prudhomme said, we are moving the Tour one week forward because of the Olympics. It wasn’t such a problem because it was 2010 and I didn’t even know if I’d race the Tour in 2012.”
The Vacansoleil sports directors talked to De Gendt after last year’s Tour. First they were upset with his decision, but they came around and even gave him a raise at the end of the year.
“It’s okay. [Marriage is] also very important in life!” says Cornelisse.
“He had a good excuse. He did everything to do the Tour de France, but then they moved it forward for the Olympics.
“He has other goals, he wants to do the Giro and the Vuelta. If he places top ten in the Vuelta then that’s also a good result for Vacansoleil.”
Vacansoleil offered the ideal home for De Gendt and an easy stepping stone from Topsport Vlaanderen. It had a few names last year, but no one that stood out for the overall in big stage races. This especially became the case after the team fired Riccardo Riccò and Ezequiel Mosquera for doping.
It features a few strong classics riders, like Stijn Devolder and Björn Leukemans. In fact, Leukemans and De Gendt got to know one another well in an escape group while racing.
“I put him in pain when we were on a mountain,” De Gendt says. “He was yelling at me to go slow.”
Leukemans forgave him and recommended him to Vacansoleil’s general manager, Daan Luyckx, who offered De Gendt a place on the team.
Even if the pay was not as great as what other riders might have been earning at Belgian teams Quick Step and Lotto last year, De Gendt had his freedom.
“It’s the best team for me at the moment. For the next two years, I’ll have a lot of freedom in my programme. Last year, the DS said, ‘You have to do this and this.’ Now he says, ‘Do what you want.’
“I did more training and for the first time I was able to race the WorldTour races. I wasn’t under pressure because we don’t have a big guy in the team, we are mostly young guys who need to discover our talents. I think it’s better for a young guy to be in a team without a top rider. Like in the Tour, Rob Ruijgh was 21st in the GC. If he was in Schleck’s team, he’d have to work and only finish 65th. At Vacansoleil, he was our GC guy.
“RadioShack or Sky, for example, has a bigger budget, but we try to give unknown rides a contract. Before last year, no one knew Thomas De Gendt,” adds Cornelisse. “We work with them, we have Wout Poels, Rob Ruijgh, Lieuwe Westra, Johnny Hoogerland… With Vacansoleil they became good riders. It’s the best team for De Gendt, he can be himself.”
Part of being himself means De Gendt continues with his special time trial warm-ups. He refuses to ride on a turbo trainer ahead of the race, instead he rides the course. That is what he did last year in Grenoble.
“I really don’t like being on a trainer,” he says. “You’re biking, but you’re staying in the same place!”
He adds that he has a trainer at home, but will use it no more than five times a year and “that’s a lot.”
Even with the results he has had, he doesn’t have the ambition to specialise in time trials.
“If you specialise in that, then maybe lose some of your climbing skills. Besides, there are only about eight time trials you could win in one year and you’d have a hard time beating Martin and Cancellara. I think it’s best for me to improve my climbing while staying at the same level in time trials. If you can do well on the climbs then you are automatically at the front of the GC.”
De Gendt wants to focus on wins and riding well in smaller stage races. After speaking with Cycle Sport, he won the seventh stage of Paris-Nice.
“It’s important for me since I wore the yellow jersey and won a stage last year,” he explained in Nice. “I wanted to do well in the GC, but I lost all my chances in the second stage when I missed the big [Bradley Wiggins - ed.] break.”
He has a schedule of mostly week-long stage races leading to the Ardennes Classics. After a break, he will travel to Stelvio or Tenerife to train at altitude ahead of the Giro d’Italia.
“Automatically, if you already win a stage [in those smaller stage races], you are close in the classification battle. You can do both, try to win a stage and go for the GC. I’m not going to win Paris-Nice or the Dauphiné Libéré, or other races at that level, but I think a top ten is possible. The Grand Tours are too hard for me, I will just try to win stages and not race for the GC. It’s 21 days, but after eight days, I already am saying, it’s enough.”
As with the Nice win, the Serfaus pursuit with Schleck or abandoning a cold classic for a warm mobile home, he will exploit an opportunity when it comes.
“It doesn’t matter where I win, as long as I win. If I win more than once, all the better.”
De Gendt on…
…The lonely life at the top
“I always go to Stelvio at 1,900 metres for altitude training. Usually, I want to stay for two weeks, but after one week last year, I was bored and I took my car, went home and rented an altitude tent.”
“I have the astrological sign of a scorpion on my leg. More? No! My future wife is against it. I had this one before I met her.”