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Johan Vansummeren: Life after racing

Jack Elton-Walters
14 May 2017

Johan Vansummeren was speaking at the Tour d'Azerbaidjan, where he was on a trial week as DS with the Synergy Baku Cycling Project

Johan Vansummeren's biggest win came when he rode away from everyone to take a solo victory at Paris-Roubaix in 2011, a race in which he recorded a further three top-10 finishes. He was also active in many other Classics and achieved high placings in stage races.

Forced to retire part way through the 2016 season due to a heart problem, at 35-years-old Vansummeren wasn't yet ready to hang up his wheels and found the transition difficult.

'Yeah it wasn’t that easy. Still thinking as a racer, that’s my problem now I still think as a cyclist,' he said ahead of the final stage of the 2017 Tour d'Azerbaidjan, where he was shadowing one of the teams in a trial DS role.

'I’m involved in cycling and I really like it, you know. It’s what I love to do since [I was] a young guy.'

Almost a year since he forced retirement it seems like he's come to terms with the hand he was dealt. 'It would have been nice if it was different but there was no choice,' he said.

At first, Vansummeren was dismissive of the implications of the heart defect that brought his racing to a close. 'Last year, I think I had something in my mind and I was still riding full gas and training.'

With his first winter in retirement now behind him, and the first professional cycling season since 2001 to start without him racing he's getting a lot more comfortable with life outside of the pro scene.

'There’s one moment you have to accept but in the beginning it was not so easy to accept.

'Since the season started, now I know yeah it’s over. Also, you start to get scared a little bit when they tell you that you have a heart problem.

'In the beginning I wasn’t scared at all but then one time I felt "ah my chest my chest." Now it’s time [to stop training].'

Advising riders, but quick to point out that his position with the team hasn't been confirmed (yet). Photo: Jack Elton-Walters

Trialling a new role

Vansummeren was in Azerbaijan as part of the next stage of his life in cycling on a trial week with the home team, Synergy Baku Cycling Project.

He was quick to stress that nothing about a permanent role was confirmed yet, but had clearly enjoyed his week with the team. 'I’ve had a good time, it was fun.'

Before adding, modestly, 'Of course, we had also a quite easy job because when you have good riders it’s easy directing.'

Azerbaijan's adopted son, Russian-born Kirill Pozdnyakov - who has become Azeri national champion - won the five stage race after a solo win on the hilly second stage and consolidated his advantage up until the last finish line on the Formula 1 circuit in Baku.

Vansummeren with Pozdnyakov after the latter's stage win. Photo: Jack Elton-Walters

'For them it’s also very important if you have a rider from their team who can win in their country then it’s a really big achievement,' Vansummeren said ahead of the final stage, where Pozdnyakov finished in the bunch to confirm his overall win.

Following the race, it was the Belgian's intention to stay in the country for another week to allow time for discussions about his future. At the time of writing any announcement is yet to be made, but talks are likely to have been concluded one way or the other.

With the Azerbaijani Cycling Federation putting more time, resources and money into the sport in their country it seems unlikely that someone with Vansummeren's palmares would be sent packing, especially after his advisory role during a winning week.

It's not what you know... 

Cycling can be a particularly small world at times with riders and staff often knowing each other personally or at least sharing mutual friends. A similar scenario was the reason behind Vansummeren's initial involvement with the team.

'My wife she knows a guy from Azerbaijan who lives in my city and he made contact, he called around a little bit,' the former pro commented.

Yet, his involvement was both another look back at a career cut short and also a first step into his future.

'It was also one of the things that I wanted to do in my last years as a professional cyclist, [ride] in a smaller team and do all these races I have never done all over the world. I always said it doesn’t need to bring a lot of money. I just want to see the world a little.'

As well as working in teams and at races where he would have liked to ride, his newly forming career is also about looking much further ahead.

After he stopped riding competitively last June, Vansummeren sent letters to WorldTour teams but said it was 'hard to get in' to the established top tier teams.

'I spoke with some team managers and they said "yeah maybe it’s good to have some experience at a lower level" and I’m trying to do that,' he said, hinting towards a more permanent position with the Baku squad.

All races are equal, even when some are more equal than others

'The WorldTour is the WorldTour,' as Vansummeren put it, but he says that for riders every race they start is just as important regardless of its level.

'For the [Synergy Baku] guys it’s the same, they have the same amount of stress starting now when you have the leader’s jersey as when Chris Froome starts the Tour de France,' he said before the team wrapped up the overall win.

'It’s as important for them, no one wants to lose.'

As the team's resources and ambitions grow, Vansummeren is looking to grow his post-racing career with the squad.

The country is getting more and more behind sports, hosting the Formula 1 and this cycling race, as well as the 2015 European Games and this year's Islamic Solidarity Games, so presently there is ample state support to push things forward, but we'll have to wait and see whether that means getting a team to WorldTour level.

As Vansummeren puts it, 'With the Formula 1 track there has to be money here but you need to find the right guy who is interested in cycling.'

There's a world of difference between five stages in the South Caucasus and three weeks around France, but if Vansummeren is to get to live as close as possible to his previous life then you can bet he'll be pushing this team to achieve all it can.

After all, 'What I miss is a big Tour stage' he says.

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