While Liesbet De Vocht’s (Lotto-Belisol) fellow Belgians prepared for the women’s world road championships in Ponferrada, Spain, she sat on the sidelines, literally. She was unable to ride due to a debilitating knee injury sustained in September’s Boels Ladies Tour. “I knew immediately when I crashed, my chances for worlds were over,” she said. “I was crushed, to say the least. I landed directly on my knee, cutting it straight through to the bone. They stitched it up but I wasn’t allowed to bend the knee for the first few days. After 10 days, the wound was still open and still wasn’t 100 percent.”
As world championships was to have been the last race of De Vocht’s career, she officially entered early retirement. “The decision to retire didn’t come overnight. It’s taken me two years, in fact, to get here. Last year, I was all ready to stop but then I won the Belgian road championships. It was difficult pass up a whole year of riding in the peloton with that prestigious jersey. Now that I’m without the jersey I can easily say goodbye. At my age , I just want a house and a family, including kids. Luckily I already have a boyfriend so I am halfway there,” said De Vocht.
Although her career was unexpectedly shortened by a month, her list of career accomplishments is anything but short. This year alone, she’s landed on the podium of UCI international events four times including a fourth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and second in the Belgian time trial championships. She’s also placed seventh in both Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders.
Over the 11-year span of her career from 2004 to 2014, she’s accumulated 54 victories. These victories include four Belgian time trial championships (2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013) and two Belgian road championships in 2010 and 2013. The two Belgian road victories are especially sweet for her as they have sentimental significance. “[Belgian championships] in Geel was in front of my home crowd, while La Roche was a very personal victory. I did all preparation myself from food, gear, climb training where I basically went to the mountains to learn how to climb. … So that victory was for me.”
Another accomplishment that ranks high for De Vocht was her debut in the 2012 Olympics. “In 2011, I quit my full-time job as a programmer to focus solely on cycling in hopes to qualify for the Olympics. Well, the gamble paid off as my dream came true. And a ninth place made it that much more special.” As there was only one automatic Olympic spot allocated to the Belgian women, De Vocht sacrificed her position on Marianne Vos’ Nederland-Bloeit team to ride for the Belgian Topsport Vlaanderen Team, where she could more easily earn valuable UCI points as team leader, as opposed to riding in support of Vos. With the additional points accumulated, Belgium was able to take two additional women, including De Vocht.
While most racers would name a certain victory as their top favorite experience on the bike, De Vocht recalls an event where she missed the finish altogether. “In the 2010 Tour de Laude, I was off the front with teammate Annemiek van Vleuten when the course marshals sent us off in the wrong direction. Even though one of us surely would have won the stage, but didn’t, it was still an amazing experience to ride off the front together like that. We also worked really well as a team, where we lost time on the climbs, but could make it back in the descents — always a fun thing to do!”
De Vocht got her first taste of the bike racing scene as a supporter for her brother, former professional Wim De Vocht, as well as ex-boyfriend Tom Boonen whom she dated from 1997-2003. She spent so much time on her bike at the races to get back and forth between start, finish, and feed zones that she began to see improvement in her own cycling. Once she and Boonen split, she became inspired to see how far she could get if she gave it a shot herself, starting off with the mountain bike before switching to the pavement.
She’d gotten so far in her career, in fact, that when it came time to retire, her hometown of Arendonk held an official retirement race in July where 85 women, including Marianne Vos and this year’s Belgian road champion Jolien D’Hoore, lined up alongside her to give her a proper sendoff. After she crossed the line — with an average speed of 41.32kph, hands raised in the air, the festivities began. She kicked it off by thanking all her supporters, fans, and friends she’s made over the years, adding, “I will definitely look back to this time in my life with a lot of joy and a smile across my face.”
And now looking back specifically to that special day, she muses, “For sure I appreciate my early retirement party in Arendonk even more.”
De Vocht may be retiring from professional cycling, but she promises to firmly remain in the cycling community. “Next year, the plan is to work for Lotto-Soudal womens’ under-23 riders, coaching them as well as handling some of the administrative work. I’ll also be coaching the novices and juniors on the Balen BC cycling club from the area. As long as I don’t have to go back to a nine-to-five job, I’ll be happy.”