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‘Everyone is right to think we’re crazy’: In conversation with Koen de Kort

4 Aug 2020

At 37, Koen de Kort is one of the oldest pros in the peloton. Cyclist caught up with him before racing resumed to talk going pro in the Armstrong-era, never winning a race and descending at 117kmh

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Peter Stuart

Cyclist: You’ve been a pro for 18 years, predominantly as a domestique for the likes of Marcel Kittel and Alberto Contador. But does the fact you’ve never won a race make you jealous?

Koen de Kort: I have never been jealous, not once. Of course it is nice to be told you have done a good job, but that doesn’t have to involve standing on the podium. It’s much more important to hear from the team leader that they couldn’t have done what they did without you. If my leader comes up to me after a win and says, ‘That was amazing, I’ll get you a beer tonight,’ that’s all it takes. That means a lot.

Cyc: Which victory are you most proud of helping a teammate achieve?

KdK: I’ve helped riders to some amazing wins. Contador at his final Vuelta a España in 2017 on the Angliru. John Degenkolb winning the 2015 Milan-San Remo and then Paris-Roubaix was special, especially as he is my best friend off the bike and we all know that Roubaix comes as a team victory.

But, above all else, guiding Kittel to victory on the Champs-Èlysèes on Stage 21 of the 2013 Tour de France was something else. I led into the final corner, and Kittel launched his sprint from my wheel to win such an iconic stage. It’s quite the honour for a sprint leadout man like myself, especially as it tended to always be Mark Renshaw getting that moment back then!

Cyc: When you turned professional in 2002 with the Rabobank development team, did you know your career would be spent in the service of others?

KdK: When you turn professional you do not think you will be a domestique, but you have to remember I turned professional in 2002 and – how can I put it? – they were going quite fast back then. So you were just expected to work for the team. Not like the current peloton where a young rider can turn pro and get results straight away.

Cyc: You say turning professional in 2002 was ‘challenging’, and we now understand why that was – the sport wasn’t clean. Is it completely different for young riders today?

KdK: Oh yes, it’s very different. I was with the Rabobank development team and about 15 of that squad turned pro. We won almost everything at under-23 level with myself and the likes of Rory Sutherland, Laurens Ten Dam, Thomas Dekker and Pieter Weening. We were just better than everyone.

Then I turned pro and it felt like I could no longer ride a bike. Everyone was better than me, which was a weird feeling. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was so much worse. I thought it was just because I was young, but then I worked it out later. I probably should have noticed.

Cyc: Being a domestique, you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the gruppetto at Grand Tours. Is descending in the gruppetto really as scary as people make out?

KdK: It’s not the maximum speeds of our descents that would impress you, it is the speed we all take the corners at. It’s quite something – everyone is right to think we’re crazy. I love to descend so I’m probably one of those driving the pace. I’ve hit 100kmh a few times but it’s mainly in the Middle East or in America where you hit the big numbers. There are too many corners in Europe to go properly fast. I hit 114kmh in the Tour of Oman, and then at the Tour of California I was chasing between groups and got up to 117kmh.

But if you have time to look at your speed during the race, you’re not going fast enough.

Cyc: The coronavirus pandemic has made this a truly unique year. How have you been coping away from racing?

KdK: Honestly, I did struggle at the beginning. When the lockdown began in March, the team told us to take it easy and treat it like off-season and it was during this time that I lost a bit of motivation.

Mentally, I didn’t feel great. I was in an apartment by myself in Andorra, I couldn’t race, I couldn’t even leave the apartment to ride. For me as an athlete, it was challenging not being able to see a goal to work towards.

I’d also just opened a cafe in Andorra before the lockdown started. It was a big investment of my time and money, and then suddenly it was closed. We’ve now been closed twice as long as we’ve been open, but the costs have continued to mount up.

I didn’t know when and if the cafe would open again, I didn’t know when I would be racing again. It seemed like all these bad things came together at once and my usual outlet for stress of riding my bike had been taken away from me.

It all came together and I was not in a great place for a week or two, but then you realise there’s a future and there’s hope.

Cyc: And given the circumstances, we guess you had to find this hope and optimism away from racing?

KdK: Yes, totally. I started to really enjoy using Zwift, doing group rides with mates and teammates. I also love doing group rides with fans on Zwift too because I get to interact with people, answer questions.

The government then allowed us to hike in Andorra before we could ride, and I took that opportunity. Before lockdown I think I’d hiked maybe 20 times in the previous five years but I’ve now gone hiking 20 times in the past three weeks.

I then also picked up my studying for a degree in sports management. I started it before I turned professional way back in 2002 and I’ve put it off every year since, but I’ve found time to pick that back up.

I’ve also started cooking a lot as I live alone, which is a first. I’m always on the road with the team and we have a chef cooking our meals, and then when I’m back home in Andorra or the Netherlands I spend most nights going to dinner with friends and family. So on the rare occasion I did cook, it was super-basic, like plain pasta and salad. But now I’ve had the time to experiment and discover this new passion.

Koen de Kort Age: 37  
Nationality: Dutch  
Current team: Trek-Segafredo  
Biggest win: Paris-Roubaix Espoirs (under-23) 2004  
Highest position at the Tour de France: 70th (2017)