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The king of riding solo: Thomas de Gendt profile

In-depth
27 Mar 2020
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The current coronavirus pandemic saw government take action to ensure social distancing with a range of unprecedented measures including the banning of cycling in groups.

For now, we are permitted to ride alone or with a family member and while this enforced solitude may not be to everyone's liking, it's a necessary measure to ensure a swift return to normality.

Oh, and there's actually something quite nice about riding your bike alone. Just ask the king of riding solo, Thomas de Gendt.

Words James Witts Photography Geoff Waugh

Power meters are, according to many, the scourge of excitement. They are the death knell for professional cycling, the undertaker of panache. Riding by wattage kills spontaneity and makes race winning little more than an exercise in data analysis. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Thankfully there are still riders who race with courage and romance, eschewing sensible tactics in an often futile all-out bid for glory. One of those riders is stage-hunter extraordinaire Thomas De Gendt.

For a man who measures 1.77m tall and 69kg light, the Belgian’s breakaway performances have towered over the strategically safe peloton for years. The 34-year-old Lotto-Soudal rider has, on numerous occasions, lit up a stage by escaping from the energy-conserving peloton, facing the wind and riding with the freedom of years gone by.

This year at the Tour de France, he produced one of his most memorable performances on Stage 8, riding in a break for 200km before dropping his breakaway companions to cross the line in Saint-Étienne alone. Just how he likes it.

It is a few days later when Cyclist meets him, looking relaxed in the corporate environs of the Holiday Inn in Blagnac on the evening of Stage 11. Earlier in the day, teammate Caleb Ewan won the first of his three Tour stages, edging Jumbo-Visma’s Dylan Groenewegen by the thickness of a 25mm slice of rubber.

It’s already proving to be a fruitful Tour for the Belgian squad, and De Gendt radiates positivity as he reveals the secret to his breakaway success.

‘You have to believe,’ De Gendt says matter-of-factly. ‘Keep in mind that it’s possible. If you think you’ll be caught, you won’t push as hard and you will be caught. You have to believe.’

Failure is key to success

Belief in yourself and your team when things aren’t going your way is arguably the essence that you’d seek to bottle when spawning and nurturing elite athletes.

As basketball legend Michael Jordan surmised, ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in life. And that is why I succeed.’

Success eclipses perceived failure in the minds of cycling fans who admire, in the case of the WorldTour, the man or woman who pokes his or her head above the peloton parapet. De Gendt’s breakaway success writes the foreword, but behind it lies chapter after chapter of frustration, of near-misses.

‘The Tour victory was just my 12th breakaway of the season,’ De Gendt says. Of the previous 11, he’d won only once, during Stage 1 of the Volta a Catalunya in March.

That’s a 17% strike rate. Which is better than 2018 when, in 26 breakaway attempts, De Gendt won twice, again at Catalunya and also Romandie, for an 8% strike rate.

That’s not to denigrate his achievements. It’s simply to illustrate not only the Herculean task required to break and remain clear of, as in the case of the Tour de France, 164 opposition riders, but also De Gendt’s stoicism.

‘In 2018 I spent over 3,000km in breakaways out of around 13,000km racing,’ he says. ‘Of course, you don’t always win but I like to race aggressively. I like to show myself, to show my colours,’ he adds poetically.

There’s also the pragmatic side. ‘If you’re in a solo breakaway, you have the television coverage for yourself. That’s something the sponsors appreciate.’

Would the Belgian lottery (Lotto) and Belgian adhesive manufacturers (Soudal) be disappointed, then, that midway through July, he’d yet to record half the breakaways of 2018?

‘I don’t think so,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’ve been more selective this season. Partly that’s down to having Caleb in the team. He’s light and can survive and challenge for stages that André [Greipel, the giant German who left Lotto-Soudal in 2019 for Arkea-Samsic] couldn’t. With Caleb, I can preserve energy and really focus on winnable stages.’

De Gendt’s focus reached laser-sharp intensity at Stage 8 of this year’s Tour, a hilly 200km from Macon to Saint-Étienne. He put the hammer down the instant the flag dropped, his immediate break shadowed only by Niki Terpstra (Total-Direct Energie) and Dimension Data’s Ben King.

CCC’s Alessandro De Marchi joined soon after and, well, that was that. Five hours and 17 seconds later, De Gendt clenched his fist in celebration.

Anatomy of a break

That’s the top line. But what was it about the parcours of Stage 8 that played to De Gendt’s strengths? The first is that ‘hilly’ moniker.

‘It has to be hilly enough that the sprinters aren’t interested,’ De Gendt explains. ‘Stage 8 featured nearly 4,000m [3,800m] of climbing, which puts off the likes of Elia Viviani.

‘The teams of stronger sprinters like Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews and Greg Van Avermaet might show interest, but that’s about it. And their teams would only put in two guys maximum to pull at the front of the pack, so that’s six riders pulling or being able to pull. If there’s four or five of us with a lead of four to five minutes, that gives us a chance of winning.’

De Gendt’s perfect parcours includes ‘seven or eight climbs’. Stage 8 featured seven climbs: four category two, three category three.

‘Ascending on that profile, it’s very hard to be caught,’ he says. ‘And we’re pretty even on the descents, too. In fact, the only place the pack really gained time was around 35-30km to go when there was a plateau of 2-3%. That’s when they could draft.’

You also need companions, he adds, and ones who don’t overthink. He credits De Marchi for being like him: not over-analysing, not calculating too much.

‘He’s also his own man,’ De Gendt adds. ‘I’ve been in breakaways before where the lead riders are asking, “What do we do now? What speed? Are we going fast enough? You’re the expert – tell us.” I tell them to do what they want. I just ride my pace and then, with 50-70km left, go full gas.’

On Stage 8, that was the point when De Gendt reckons he started pushing around 420 watts on the climb. Luckily for us, De Gendt is a Strava regular, so we can be more specific. With around 60km to go, he generated a 405-watt effort on a segment called Côte des Avergues. It put co-leaders King and Terpstra in trouble.

Come the final categorised climb, the Côte de la Jaillière, he unleashed a five-minute 457-watt effort, including an 877-watt surge, to dispose of De Marchi and secure the victory.

Overall, De Gendt averaged 311 watts for the entire ride at an average speed of 39kmh and an average cadence of 87rpm. His Strava file shows a tasty shark-tooth profile. It’s the sort of template that his trainer, Paul Van den Bosch, will pick over before assimilating very specific breakaway training sessions.

‘These I’ll follow in Flanders, where I live, or our regular training camp location of Calpe in Spain,’ De Gendt says. ‘Calpe is the ideal venue because I have favoured climbs for different duration efforts, whether it’s a five, 10 or 20-minute ascent.

‘You can standardise things. So I might do eight blocks of five minutes with the last effort all out, and then repeat it later in the camp to compare metrics.

‘But you can only train for the breakaway so much during training,’ he adds. ‘You really train for it in races by going in the break or chasing the break. The added motivation of races helps you dig deeper.’

De Gendt says he plans to head to Calpe in August for a pre-Vuelta a España camp. Although he started 2019 with 14 Grand Tour appearances under his belt, this year he aims to complete all three Grand Tours in one season for the first time.

The Vuelta’s opening 13.4km time-trial also starts just down the road in Salinas de Torrevieja.

The Giro, Tour and Vuelta in one season is unusual but not unique. When De Gendt’s teammate, Adam Hansen, rode into Rome for the conclusion of the 2018 Giro, it ended a record-breaking run of 20 consecutive Grand Tours that started in August 2011. So has De Gendt turned to the Aussie for enduring advice?

‘Yes. He told me to rest. A lot. For a week after the Tour, he said don’t cycle. OK, maybe one hour. Then keep the legs spinning but relax. You suffer every day in a Grand Tour and you don’t need to suffer again straight after.

‘You’ve already done the base training as you’ve ticked off over 3,000km in the previous three weeks. You might just raise things slightly with about 10 days to go, but remain relaxed.

‘He also said to detox after the Tour. You eat so much sugar so Adam would eat very little and just drink water. It cleansed the system. I’m not going to give that a go, though. The first thing I’ll do after Paris is eat French fries!’

Stress of the GC

De Gendt jokes that he’ll match last season’s 26-breakaway record at the Vuelta. But if things had gone differently, he’d be racing for the red jersey.

He turned professional in 2009, competing for Belgian ProContinental team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator. A consistent two seasons, including a stage victory at the Tour de Wallonie and the mountain jersey at the Tour of Britain, saw him graduate to the WorldTour in 2011 with Dutch outfit Vacansoleil-DCM.

He served notice of his breakaway potential by winning Stage 1 of Paris-Nice in 2011, when he outsprinted FDJ’s Jéremy Roy and Leopard Trek’s Jens Voigt.

He also won Stage 7 of the Tour de Suisse that year and Stage 7 of the 2012 Paris-Nice. Which, in all honesty, didn’t hint at what was to come at the 2012 Giro d’Italia as De Gendt became the first Belgian to finish on a Grand Tour podium since Johan Bruyneel in 1995, the highlight of which was winning Stage 20 after conquering the Stelvio.

‘This hasn’t sunk in yet,’ an emotional De Gendt told the press afterwards. ‘I wasn’t anonymous before this race but now people will sit up and target me even more.’

They did. But not when it came to the GC.

‘GC became the immediate focus after that with Vacansoleil,’ De Gendt says. ‘I went to the Vuelta that year, too, but just didn’t have the legs and, mentally, I gave up halfway through.’

De Gendt finished 62nd. ‘The next year they wanted me to go for GC at the Tour but I was half an hour [24:48 to be precise] down after Stage 4. That’s when I knew GC wasn’t for me.’

Little more than 12 months after standing on the Giro podium, De Gendt had written himself off as GC contender. Why?

‘If you’re the GC rider, everything can go wrong in a split second. Take Richie Porte. He’s crashed twice already at this Tour and lost time a few days ago when he got caught behind the split in the echelons. All the training, all the build-up, it’s over. You’ve always got to be there, encountering the stress. I couldn’t handle the stress.

‘Breakaways suit me far more. If today doesn’t work out, you always have tomorrow. I think I have a bigger palmarès now than if I’d stuck with GC.’

Vacansoleil-DCM might also still be in existence and not disbanded in 2013. Cyclist recalls speaking to the team’s general manager, Daan Luijkx, who told us that around 90% of the team’s annual media coverage came at the Tour.

De Gendt as a breakaway artist rather than reluctant GC rider could have equalled greater exposure, more sponsorship and at least survival. It’s hugely hypothetical, of course – if not highly speculative – but Vacansoleil-DCM’s folding saw De Gendt sign for Omega Pharma-QuickStep in 2014. After a largely uneventful season, he moved on to Lotto-Soudal for 2015.

In search of adventure

Unusually for a Belgian rider on a Belgian team, he wasn’t recruited for the spring Classics. Instead he’d provide a mix of domestique and breakaway duties including his famous 2016 Tour stage win on Mont Ventoux, plus another breakaway triumph at the 2017 Vuelta.

He also racked up numerous mountain classifications, including the 2018 Vuelta, and you could fill a wardrobe with Grand Tour combativity jerseys. De Gendt and his team’s performance at the 2019 Tour de France helped elevated them to 10th in the UCI WorldTour rankings, a big leap from 15th in 2018.

Still, the season is long and things can change before it ends in October, the point at which the average rider would want to fall back on his family – De Gendt is married and has two young children – and relax.

De Gendt isn’t very good at relaxing. In 2018, after his last race, Il Lombardia, he and teammate Tim Wellens cycled the 1,000km from Italy to their Belgian homes in six days. They loved the freedom so much that this November they will embark on their next adventure – one they’ve termed The Final Breakaway.

‘We’re riding 680km around an area in Spain called Montanas Vacias or the “Empty Mountains”. It’s called the Spanish Lapland because of its low population. I think it’s around seven people per square kilometre.

‘We’ll ride over six stages and 80% of it is on gravel. We found a route online [montanasvacias.com] and asked the guy if we could use his GPX file. He agreed.

‘He’s trying to promote the area as it has no tourism and has just old people living there. It will die if no one moves there, so hopefully our adventures will bring such a beautiful area some exposure.’

And from there it will be a short break and back to Calpe for off-season training. De Gendt’s ambitions remain the breakaway, although he concedes the day will come when his role of 50% breakaway rider/50% domestique will become 100% domestique.

Until then, you can continue to monitor the 32-year-old’s training metrics on Strava. But you’ll only see his true heart when it comes to racing.

Breakaway breakdown

Highlights from Thomas De Gendt’s career

1986: Born on 6th November in Sint-Niklaas in Flanders, Belgium

2007: Takes his first senior win, a stage of Thüringen-Rundfahrt, while riding for the Continental DAVO team

2009: Turns pro with the Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator team, winning a stage of the Tour de Wallonie in Belgium

2010: Places second at De Brabantse Pijl in April but ends the year winless, before switching to Vacansoleil-DCM and the WorldTour for 2011

2011: Starts the year well with a stage win at Paris-Nice, and a strong Tour debut culminates in 5th on Stage 19 to Alpe d’Huez, then 3rd in the Stage 20 TT

2012: Finishes his debut Giro on the podium after winning the final mountain stage on the Stelvio, but places a disappointing 62nd overall at the Vuelta

2014: Moves to Omega Pharma-QuickStep, but despite regular appearances in the break at the Giro d’Italia, ends the year winless

2015: Switches to Lotto-Soudal and wins the mountains jersey at Paris-Nice

2016: Wins on Mont Ventoux in the Tour and finishes runner-up in the King of the Mountains

2017: Is a regular fixture in King of the Mountains competitions all season, then wins Stage 19 of the Vuelta

2019: Wins Stage 8 of the Tour after a day-long breakaway, and is named in the starting line-up for all three Grand Tours for the first time in his career

De Gendt on…

…Spare ribs

‘Before the first rest day, our chef made hamburgers and fries. They were nice but I prefer spare ribs. He first cooked them for us in 2015. Greg Henderson and I crashed and we both broke our ribs, so he chose spare ribs in remembrance! André Greipel broke his ribs soon after so he also joined the spare rib club!’

…Brotherly love

‘My older brother cycled. He raced cyclocross mainly and wasn’t very good, but I loved watching him at his races. I’d then cycle around our garden – I wanted to cycle like him.

‘When you are five or six, you contract the cycling microbe. It’s like a disease. In Belgium you could only race from around 12. In The Netherlands you could do so earlier, so we used to cross the border. I still remember the smell of the changing room: the balm, the oil, eucalyptus. It evokes great memories.’

… Video games

‘Away from cycling I play video games a lot. I enjoy games like Grand Theft Auto. But I never bring my PlayStation with me to the Tour. I did the first time I raced in France, played it for the first three days but then ran out of time and energy. Ride, transfer, massage, dinner at eight, media, bed… there is just no time.’

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