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An Old-Style Hardman

Words/images: James Startt

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Belgian rider Thomas De Gendt is one of cycling’s unsung heroes. A tireless team worker for Lotto-Soudal sprinter André Greipel, De Gendt has forged a name for himself and respect in the peloton as a long-breakaway specialist, a quality that has won him stages at all three grand tours—on mountaintop finishes at the 2012 Giro d’Italia (Passo dello Stelvio) and 2016 Tour de France (Mont Ventoux) and on a rolling stage to Gijon in the 2017 Vuelta a España. PELOTON magazine got together with De Gendt, 31, at Paris–Nice, the French stage race race where he scored his first major professional victory in 2011.

Thomas, you are in some ways the last of a dying breed, a long-breakaway specialist. As the sport gets increasingly calculated, there is less and less room for riders like yourself. But you are still out there winning races in the long breaks…. Yeah, it’s getting harder and harder though. In addition to that, the riders know that I can go the distance, so they don’t give me much of a gap anymore. The pack rarely gives me seven or eight minutes when I am in a break, like when I was starting out. They used to, but now they are not so generous. Now, when they know that I am in the break, they rarely give me more than three minutes, so I have to be smart with my time. Back when I was starting out I could surprise the bunch more easily. But those days are over.

I was on a moto when you won the opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné last year. It was fascinating to see how you just kept increasing the tempo little by little over 200 kilometers. It was impressive. People often think that a successful long break is about luck. But there is a lot of calculation involved, right? Well, you really have to go fast when you think that the peloton will go fast. And then there are places, like say in the feed zone, where the peloton usually slows down and you can exploit that and gain a little time. Whenever I am in a break with guys I always tell them to take bottles and food from the team car and not in the feed zone. It is easier to maintain your speed getting a feed from a team car so I try to get everybody to do that.

If I am in a break with a good group of riders it is important that we speak a lot, that we communicate to make the most out of the route and gain the most out of the small downhills and the moments where we can gain time. Gaining time on the climbs is difficult. I mean the climbs are hard on everybody. But there are always moments in the race where you can gain a little time. So a lot of communication is involved.

In addition, you always need to calculate the gap, and how much time you think you need at a certain point in the race to stay away. On that stage in the Dauphiné, for example, I knew we needed about one minute 20 seconds on the last climb.

How do you calculate something like that? Well, when I am not in the breakaway I am often in the bunch chasing a break. We have a certain sprinter on the team, André Greipel, and there are plenty of days when I am chasing the break, trying to keep it under control. But, you know, we generally have what we call the one-minute rule when it comes to breakaways. Essentially, you need one minute per 10 kilometers to have a chance to stay away. With 30 kilometers remaining, you need three minutes to have a chance and with 20 kilometer left you need two minutes and so on. On that stage in the Dauphiné I knew that there was about 7 kilometers of descent after the climb, but I had to get up the climb with a margin still. Generally, I make my calculations 30 kilometers from the finish. If I have three minutes at that point then I will really go for victory, but if it is much less well then I just ride on in, knowing I’ll probably get caught. That said, every break is different.

Yeah, I remember Jacky Durand, another great breakaway artist, used to say, “Give me two minutes and 20 kilometers and I’ll take it every day.” Exactly. That fits in the one-minute-per-10 kilometers rule. It is sort of a time-honored calculation. In addition, the pack will only give you so much time on any given day, and if you ride 40 kilometers an hour or 42 kilometers an hour the gap will stay the same. So it is important to figure out where that sweet spot is. That way you can ride as easily as possible and then have the most left at the finish. Okay, most days the breakaway doesn’t work. We probably only manage to stay away two or three times in a season. But those two or three times I can go for victory, something that would not be the case if I was just sitting in the pack all the time.

How did you get into cycling? Well, my older brother got into it first and he got me interested. At the time, you could only start racing in Belgium at the age of 12, but we lived on the border with Holland, and in Holland I could start racing already at 10, so I got into it very early. The races might only be 5 or 6 kilometers, nothing really, but it was enough to get me into it. After juniors, when I was an under-23 rider, I got more serious about it. I got into a sport-study school that gave me time to go training in the afternoons. We have that in Belgium and a lot of people that want to train seriously at a young age can get into such a program. Very few actually turn professional, but the opportunity is there.

Cycling in Belgium is crazy popular. Did you have any idols growing up? Jens Voigt!

Really? He’s not Belgian! Yes, but I only started to really follow the stars as I got older. I loved his style and I already raced like he did, always attacking, etcetera—when I was younger I would be the guy attacking on the first lap. So when I saw Jens doing it I was like, “There, that is the rider I would like to be!”

That’s interesting, because one of your first big pro victories came in the 2011 Paris–Nice race where you were in the breakaway with Voigt and won the opening stage. Was that the first time you were in a break together? Hmm, yeah, probably! I remember he was one of the first to attack and when I bridged up, I was, “Cool, now we have a real chance to stay away!” It was a funny race. We only got away with 40 kilometers to go and we only had like a 44-second gap, so the one-minute-per-10 kilometers rule didn’t really work that day. But because the breakaway came late in the race we were fresh. He was going really hard, just full gas. Every time he would pull through, the speed would increase. But I didn’t want to seem like I was the weakest so I pulled really hard too and that helped us stay away.

And then the next year you finished third overall in the Giro d’Italia after winning the Stelvio stage. After that, did you think that you could be more than a breakaway rider? I tried. The next year I focused on the GC in Paris–Nice and the Tour de Catalonia, but I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t really cut out for that. Everything just came together at that Giro. And I was a lot skinnier. I was only 67 kilos [147 pounds] and usually I am at 69, 70 [154 pounds], and as I got older and gained power, I took on more muscle and it just wasn’t possible to make that weight again. I got married in 2012 at the end of the season and we went away on a long honeymoon. I came back 10 kilos [22 pounds] over my normal weight and never really lost it. Sure, I lost some of it, but some just turned into muscle and I never got back to the weight of that Giro. And since I have had kids, I spend my winters carrying around the maxi-cozy all the time and I realized that the extra muscle weight just never wore off anymore!

I started the Giro that year at 67 kilos and probably got down to 65 [143 pounds] by the end of the race. But that winter I went up to 78 kilos [171 pounds] and I never got below 69 any more. That was the end of my GC career. [Ironically, when De Gendt won stage 3 of this spring’s Tour of Catalonia—his third stage victory at the Spanish race in the past six years—at the end of yet another long breakaway, he took over the race leadership prior to the main mountain stage.]

Being Belgian, you didn’t dream of being a classics rider? With your power, you could be good on the cobbles it seems…. Well, I tried those races, but they just didn’t suit me. Today, I live close to the Molenberg and I can do all of the big climbs from the Tour of Flanders in a 150-kilometer training ride. So I know the climbs well and going fast on them is not the problem. I have the power. But I am not good at fighting for position, so I would always start the climbs poorly positioned. That’s another reason why I like being in breakaways or riding at the front and doing tempo for André [Greipel]. I don’t have to fight with anyone for position. That’s better for me.

You seem to have found your home at Lotto-Soudal? Well, they like the way I race and they support the way I race. They want to be known as an attacking team and I fit in perfectly with that…and the fact that we don’t have a real GC rider on the team. If that was the case, I wouldn’t be going in so many breakaways. But as it stands I have opportunities. Okay, on the really flat stages I have to stay with André, but on other stages I can go in the breaks. It’s a good compromise.

What is the race you would most like to win? Well, the race I most want to win is Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but I know it is not possible. For me that is the hardest of the five monuments. It is harder than Flanders. I’ve done it six or seven times and been in the breakaway two or three years, but I just know that winning it is not possible for me. If I had my choice, though, Liège would be my pick.

What about the race that you could win? Oh, I don’t even know. Of the races that I could win, like a stage in the Tour, I have already won. I’ve won a mountain stage in the Giro and in the Tour, so if I could win a mountain stage in the Vuelta a España that would be nice!

From issue 75. Buy it here.