The Tour debutants of Lotto Soudal share their experiences
At this moment the riders at the Tour can enjoy the second, well-deserved rest day. For a few men in the bunch and people in the caravan this is their first Tour de France. Also in the Lotto Soudal team that’s the case for some. This is the Tour début of Jens Debusschere and Tim Wellens. In the staff there are some new faces as well: mechanic Jean-Pierre Christiaens and sports directors Bart Leysen and Frederik Willems. Some already have more Tour experience than others.
As a rider Frederik Willems participated five times in the Tour. At the end of last season he put an end to his career as a cyclist and became sports director at Lotto Soudal. In this Tour de France he rides a few kilometres in front of the riders to give details about the course to the sports directors, so this is his first Tour as staff member.
“During this Tour I ride in front of the riders to pass on information to the two sports directors in the race. That means I tell them the weather and wind conditions, that was especially important in the first week. I tell which are the dangerous points on the course and describe the intermediate sprint and finish.”
“The Tour is very different than any other race. Everything is bigger here. Because of our three stage wins and the fight of André Greipel for green, the interest in our team is even bigger, from both press and spectators. This is totally different than as a rider. As a rider it’s all about eating, cycling, resting and sleeping. When you close your bedroom door it remains hectic outside. Now I notice that much more.”
“The days are longer in this function. Before a stage there is the general preparation, the meeting with the sports directors and the tactical meeting with the riders. As a sports director you see more details; what do the riders eat and how do they feel? That can be without any words, just by looking at their faces. I now realize even more how much preparation is needed for the Tour. Herman Frison always makes a Tour book with all info, as a rider you take that for granted now I know how much work that takes.”
Bart Leysen rode three Tours as a rider, then he went seven times to France as a mechanic. In 2011 he was sports director at the Katusha team and this time for the first time at the Lotto Soudal team.
“This has already been a successful Tour for Lotto Soudal, thanks to the stage win of Greipel at Neeltje Jans on the second day the pressure immediately disappeared for us. I drive the second team car, when there is one of our riders in a breakaway I ride behind that group. For this team I already went to the Giro as sports director four times. My tasks don’t differ, but in the Tour it’s a lot more crowed and everybody sees everything. There are much more spectators along the route and there is more press, in the race as well.”
“As a rider I started three times in the Tour. I completed it two times and once I abandoned in stage thirteen. I rode for Mapei at the time and we aimed for bunch sprints with Tom Steels. I liked the Tour even though it was hard, but when you win with the team you forget that. When you get on the Champs-Elysées you get goose bumps. Even though the pace is so high, you can really enjoy that moment as a rider.”
“The Tour is hard, but you don’t easily quit, that’s even different in Giro or Vuelta. You try to hold on till the bitter end. Look at Adam Hansen and Thomas De Gendt who are still here after a bad crash and even join breakaways. When I worked for the Lotto team as a mechanic we had Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans in the team. When I first rode in the team car behind a front group with Cadel, fighting for a stage win in the mountains, I was really amazed. I had never experienced such a thing before, because I wasn’t a climber.”
This is also the Tour début of mechanic Jean-Pierre Christiaens. After five Giros and six Vueltas it’s the first time Christiaens is present at La Grande Boucle. He’s been working for the team since 2012, before he worked for Katusha, Spidertech and Milram.
“The Tour isn’t completely new to me. The past years I came to the Tour to bring material for the time trial from Belgium to France, together with one of the soigneurs. That way I already got a taste of it. At this Tour Frederik Moons and I are responsible for the truck with all the material, that has to be driven from one hotel to another. I arrive at the hotel after noon, together with two soigneurs and the cooks, then we prepare everything for when the riders arrive and we take care of some technical things for which we don’t have time in the evening and we look at the last hour of the race. Because even if we are not in the race itself, we are involved in the team’s performances.”
“You can’t compare the Tour to anything. The pressure is so different from the Giro and Vuelta. The distances to travel are sometimes larger there, but the intensity and media attention at the Tour are unbelievable. The riders are more quiet than normal. This is a huge discovery, also an appreciation for the work I do, it’s a sign of confidence from the team that I can do this. I know my place though. Others have much more experience than I, so I do what I can to help them. What I still hope for? The icing on the cake, at the Champs-Elysées.”
Between the nine Lotto Soudal riders at the start in Utrecht there were two debutants: Jens Debusschere and Tim Wellens.
Tim Wellens: “It is an honour to be selected for the Tour. You look forward to it for such a long time and you’re glad it’s finally there. The days before the Tour start were impressive. For the Dutchmen the start in Utrecht was a fantastic experience and the other riders told me that I would only like the Tour again in Paris. For me that is the moment I remember the best from the past weeks, although I hope something more beautiful has still to come (laughs). During the race you notice the level is so much higher than in any other race. Almost every rider has specifically prepared himself for this. At the Giro the difference between the less good riders and the best is much bigger. The Giro was much more fun when I look at my performance. Then I had the legs to race aggressively, here I haven’t yet.
“It’s also remarkable that everything is so big, the attention of the fans and media and organization itself. In the Giro the riders loved to go to the riders village, here most like to stay on the bus as long as possible. Each rider suffers in a Grand Tour, but at the same time nobody wants to quit. Even with fractured ribs riders continue. The motivation and fighting spirit are so much bigger at the Tour. My first Tour memory? The Grand Départ in Liège in 2004, when I went to watch with my cycling club.”
Jürgen Roelandts decided to skip the Tour this year and that’s how Jens Debusschere got the chance to be part of the Tour selection and help André Greipel. “The Tour is completely as I had imagined. Very hectic, few moments to take some rest, but Jürgen already told me. Last Thursday we had an early start, a transfer to the hotel of 140 kilometres after the finish, massage, dinner after 21:00 and it was only afterwards I saw my bed. You have to accept these things. The first days I had to get used to it, but now I’m on automatic pilot. My first Tour memory dates back to the stage win of Rik Verbrugghe in 2001.”
“What strikes me at the Tour? The speed uphill (laughs). And the size, the attention for every detail. I admire someone like André Greipel, who has to cope with all that attention; it’s a matter of experience as well. In the Vuelta you can ride with the last ten of the pack all day long, it’s always straight ahead and you know the crucial points. In the Tour something can happen at any moment. That has to be really hard for the top riders, that constant focus.”
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