Five Minutes With Cyclocross Legend, Bart Wellens
Despite appearances to the contrary, Sven Nys is not the only cyclocrosser on the planet. His foil for much of the past decade has been Bart Wellens, with an impressive palmares of 2x World Champion and 2x Belgian champion. Bart returned to form this past weekend with a stellar win at a horrendously muddy GP Essen for his first big win in two seasons.
Body language never lies. While walking through the rider pits at GP Hasselt in November, it’s easy to tell the different warm up styles of the riders. Some are buried behind a wall of fans and paparazzi like Nys, some are completely internally focused and oblivious to the world like Stybar. And then there’s Bart Wellens, carrying on multiple conversations with his mechanics and crew. And watching the pre-race shows on Sporza, despite not knowing a word of Flemish, it’s easy to tell Bart’s cheery demeanour and easy-going personality.
But cycling’s a “what have you done for me lately?” sport, and it’s been a couple of seasons since a big Euro win for Wellens, with a string of middling top 15 performances this season to date. That all changed with GP Essen this past weekend, the first rollicking mudbath of the Euro season. Some may say Nys’s rear derailleur exploding gifted the win to Wellens, but equally true was that Bart rode with guts and panache, seizing the initiative right from the gun and putting himself in perfect position.
Wellens visited my lab in Brussels for some testing this past week, where we sat down for a quick chat.
PEZ: How did you find North America?
Bart Wellens There’s so much travelling! I think I took 11 flights in the 16 days I was there! And each time having to pack up the bikes and equipment. Wow. Here we complain if it’s a three hour drive Saturday night from one race to the other!
Wellens en route to victory this weekend at the GVA Trofee round in Rouwmoer.
PEZ: What’s been the change in cross over your career?
BW It’s gotten so much bigger and more professional. Now there are over 10,000 spectators at the races when there weren’t that many before. Also the amount of equipment. 10 years ago we could drive to races in our own small cars with a couple of bikes and a few sets of wheels. Now people would think you’re crazy if you didn’t have your camper, and you saw in my van how many sets of wheels I have! The training has definitely gotten a lot more serious now too.
PEZ: Speaking of that, how do you train for the season and during the season?
BW The races are so hard and intense that you generally just race on the weekends and recover during the week, maybe you can do one good workout on Wednesdays. After the season ends in February I get away from the bike for three weeks or so, and then our team does the smaller European races during the spring and summer. It’s good because we don’t have pressure to ride the big races and perform like Stybar and Boom, so it’s pretty relaxed for us. The Tour of Belgium would be our biggest race. In late July and August I’d start with more cross-specific workouts.
PEZ: My boys and I were marveling at Tom Meeusen in Niel with the ditch…
BW Yeah, he’s incredible, isn’t he? Definitely the best technical rider I’ve seen. I’ve actually seen him hop 85 cm hurdles in practice! And we’d be braking while he’d be going over hurdles at 35 km/h without braking. Plus I’ve seen him do some 2 m drops in the trails… (NB. Despite the slower speeds and boggy grounds at Essen, Meeusen still bunny-hopped the barriers every lap! Astounding!)
PEZ: You’re a rider who likes the muddy and hard courses. What are your tips for riding in sand?
BW You’ve got to be relaxed and let the bike take you through the sand rather than you forcing it. Keep a light and relaxed grip on the handlebars but don’t mess with it – as soon as you start trying to steer or lean forward you’re sunk! And keep the weight well back and your tubulars really low pressure. I remember Stybar going with 2 bars and just diving into the sand, whereas we’d have 1.5 bars or even less.
PEZ: What about mud then – same thing?
BW No, quite the opposite. You still need low tire pressure, but you need more weight on the front end. That’s especially with mud and water, where you don’t know what obstacles might be underneath. Lots and lots of power helps too!
Wellens celebrates sweet, muddy victory.
PEZ: OK, but after all the mud, how do you keep your gear and kit so clean?
BW It only looks clean from afar! If you hold it up to the light, it’s not that clean at all!
So there you have it. A chat with PEZ and a big win follows right behind. Coincidence or the real secret to success? Welcome back to the top of the podium Bart!
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s currently writing “Cutting Edge Cycling,” a book on the science of cycling due out April 2012, and can be reached for comments at [email protected] .