Let's start with the traditional comeback to the roots.
Well, I didn't have an early start in my career. I was about 14 when I started riding the bike in serious, and it was a cyclocross bike. It was four years later that I gave a thought to an idea of turning pro on the road. In 2010 I won U-23 championships road race, and basically it was a major turning point for me. So it's the seventh season in the pro ranks and the fourth one with Astana.
What made you switch to the road from cyclocross?
I wouldn't say it was an easy decision to take. I was a steady top-10 in Belgium, and in my country it means not bad at all, because the level of competition is very high, and the sport is quite popular. On the other hand, year after year, I didn't make it to the national team. I was angry and desperate, I couldn't see the reason why...
In cyclocross the only way to the very top is though the national squad, right?
Absolutely. So one day I told my dad: look, I'm sick of this, let's see what I can do on the road.
Was it a goodbye forever, or you ride some off-road now and then?
You see, it pretty easy to make a jump from dirt to tarmac; but the way back is much harder. I have ridden professionally on the road for quite a few years by now. Cyclocross means an hour full-gas, on the road I normally spread my effort over a large chunk of time. The difference is much greater than it seems to be.
Still I bet that you ride your cyclocrosser from time to time, just for fun.
Sure thing! It's more about some specific quality training than about pure fun. Don't forget the fact that I live in Belgium, it's cold and rainy in winter, riding for four plus hours is a problem under the weather conditions like that. You'd better give more variety to your training. A shorter but intensive session on a cyclocross bike is quite useful, I love running, too. There is yet another trend coming in, beach races.
Yep, I heard something about it. For a normal person beach means lean back and relax, for beach riders the opposite is true, as far as I know?
It's a young up-and-coming discipline in Belgium, which grows pretty fast. They organize about a dozen of races. We start in a large group and ride along the water line where the sand is packed the hardest. Yet you come across some sections where the wheels sink in, and you have to get down and run. Generally the course is mostly straight, the turns are few. I mean I like racing over there, I like the atmosphere. While in 2012-2013 there were four to five of us pro riders at the start, today this number can be up to fifteen, which gives more motivation to the rest of the field.
How big is the field by the way?
Up to 1000 riders. We Belgians are not the only ones into beach races, they are getting popular in Holland, in France, the British riders are also interested. You should try it one day.
Well, first it would be interesting to have a look...
Google “beach race”, you'll get some links to the videos.
Which bike would do the best job for me? A fatbike?
No, a hardtail is a far better variant, a 29er hardtail is the best option of all. Sometimes they touch 60 kmh in these races, what fatbikes you'd ride at this turn of speed?
To whizz about like that, the sand under the wheels has to be packed like concrete!
Out there near the tide it's just like that. You have to keep closer to the edge or you'll sink in and lose speed.
There must be a constant fight for the position on the shore line.
Sure, a constant fight for position and against strong costal winds; echelons, chase, that is, everything like in a hard road race.
Riding on the edge in a literary sense of the word you are likely to find yourself up to the hubs in salty water.
Sometimes it happens. Throw in wintry weather, and you'll imagine it's not the most pleasant dip in the sea.
How aggressive is the riding out there?
You know, it's just like with any other sport. The more popular it is, the more prize money is around. The higher the stakes are, the more wild the riding style is.
There's no escape, you bet. Well, talking about your off-road activity at this stage of your career, does it make you better on the road?
To my mind, different types of training certainly make you a better all-rounder. I ride off-road, I run, work in the gym, improve my balance and agility. I don't know about pure climbers, yet for a person with his focus on one-day races this approach really works. You have to put various athletic qualities to the best use.
For you, what is it that sets Team Astana apart from others?
Right from the beginning I saw it as a super strong team with a lot of charisma. I instantly loved the atmosphere, we call it Vino's family, it really feels like that. I hope this story will continue for many years to come.
Which episodes of these years with Astana you remember best of all and why?
I like this feeling of a job done well. When you put all of yourself into the team effort, your team leader's win feels like your own. Sometimes, by the way, the sheet with final standings does not fully reflect the quality of the job and the prospects it opens in the near future. When I ride beside Alexey or Michael in the great Tour of Flanders and I see their value, their ability to stay with the best, I realize that a big result is not so far away. You work for it, you believe in it, you see it coming.
What about your personal ambitions in the cobbled classics?
I would be happy with the role of road captain in the Tour of Flanders, it's my home where I know every cobble so I can help the teammates with getting through the best way possible.
It's anybody's guess, and yet: what is the best race in the World for you?
You know it, it's the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The cycling community remembers every winner forever. It's a dream like no other, but it's so hard to make true. There's just one day a year when you have to be at your absolute peak physically, to be the best of the best, and you'll need a lot of luck on top of that, too. Realistically, I'd call top-10 in the Flanders or in Paris-Roubaix a fantanstic result. If you can get there, you may say to yourself that you are a very good pro.
Photo credit: @Bettiniphoto