Culture

Day in life: Stijn Vandenbergh

Classics specialist left considering career options if he doesn't get the opportunity to ride Flanders and Roubaix this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought professional cycling to a halt. In the coming weeks we will be reaching out to pro riders and other personalities from the sport to understand how their lives are continuing amidst the shutdown.

It’s been a long, unsavory lockdown for Belgian classics specialist Stijn Vandenbergh. Like any pro from Flanders, missing the cobblestone classics hasn’t been easy to take.

The Ag2r-La Mondiale rider is one of the most experienced cobblestone riders in the bunch. He was one of Tom Boonen’s most trusted helpers for five seasons at Quick-Step before joining a recruiting effort at the French team to build a solid classics program.

Vandenbergh was fourth in the 2014 Tour of Flanders, riding in a late-race move with Greg Van Avermaet before Fabian Cancellara bridged across to claim the victory. The year before at Paris-Roubaix, Vandenbergh crashed in the Carrefour sector of cobbles after a collision with a fan after riding into the winning break, again with Cancellara the victor.

Vandenbergh, 36, is hopeful cycling’s revised calendar will see him racing across the cobbles before the season is out.

Vandenbergh and Van Avermaet went head-to head at the 2014 Tour of Flanders. Photo: Getty / Tim De Waele

Location: Zottegem, Belgium

What are the current regulations for where you live about going outside?

Since the lockdown, we’ve been able to ride with one person or alone. I’ve been doing a lot of mountain biking because it’s more fun. Normally in the winter when I try to ride off-road it’s pretty muddy. Only small shops are open, but the government is looking at opening more things soon.

What races were you planning to do that have been canceled or postponed?

Of course, the northern classics. They are the big highlight for me. I was training hard over the winter to be ready for the big races, and my form was very good. It is a shame to have missed them. It is always my main goal of the season, and I think we would have had a very good spring this year. The team is stronger than ever for the cobblestone classics.

What is your motivation for training right now?

I’ve been eating better than I normally do. I’ve been doing some light training, just to keep the form, but no stress. This is normally a busy time of the year, so to be home is a bit different. I’ve been riding two to four hours, just to keep the legs moving. It’s nice that there is now a calendar to have something to work toward.

Have you been training indoors at all?

I’ve been training outdoors, usually five days a week. I also do some core work at home in a small gym I have built. The base fitness right now is good. I think once I get a race or two in my legs, and my leg speed increases, I will be able to race at a good level.

How does a new calendar help in these circumstances?

Now we have a calendar so we can start to make some plans. All the classics are now going to be in the fall. That will be a bit strange, but the weather should be more or less the same as in the spring. I do not like the heat too much, so it’s better for me that they will be in the fall. I can imagine the team will be racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné and getting ready for the Tour de France.

Will it be odd seeing the spring classics in the fall?

It will be a bit strange, but it’s been a strange year. Normally by October you are already on vacation, and you start training again in the winter to be ready for the spring. Now they are talking of racing until November. Paris-Roubaix is scheduled for October 25. It’s hard to say what might happen. Riders who normally are strong in the spring could perform less. I think it’s the same for everyone. I was really strong a month ago, but we had no races. Now everyone will be trying to get strong again. That will be the big change.

Do you believe we will see racing again this season?

It’s not for sure. We have to wait to see if the governments will allow it. The borders are still closed, but there is still a lot of time until August. Every country will be different. Cycling is so international now, so we will see if we can cross all the borders to get to the races. Maybe the Belgian riders will just stay home and race here. All the French riders will be motivated for the Tour. The teams will be doing testing on the riders and doing things to make it safer. October is still far away for Paris-Roubaix, so we will see.

Assuming authorities allow racing and it’s safe, do you expect any surprises since there will be few preparation races before the big dates?

There will be no preparation races, that is true. Normally, Dauphiné is already a big race in June, and everyone is in top condition. Now it might be the first big race we do. The team will be planning training camps with small groups in France to be ready when we are racing again in August. We will be racing everything in just a few months. It will be very intense.

What was your last race before the lockdown?

I was supposed to race Paris-Nice, but I had a small chest cold, so I did not race there. My last race was Ruta del Sol in February in Spain. That’s been quite some time now.

How has the team worked to keep everyone motivated?

Every director has five or six riders they work with. We all get on a call every week, just to see how things are going. We also have a Skype network so we can speak to coaches, trainers, and the team dietician. It’s been good to be able to stay in touch.

Vandenbergh, a true Flandrien, lives and breathes cobbles. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

How tough was it to miss Flanders and Roubaix?

Those are the big races that I love. If I can, I want to race them again in October. I hope so, because I am not sure if I will be racing again next year. I was thinking before all of this that this might be my last year. Now I am thinking if we do not ride the classics, I don’t want to stop like this. I am thinking maybe of one more year, or maybe racing the classics to finish there. I need to speak to the team. Once we have stopped racing, now we realize we have a good life we live. I do not want to finish my career like this.

What do you miss most during these two months away from racing?

I miss going to the races, being with the team, staying in the hotels. I miss the adrenaline of the racing, that tension you have before the race, and the thrill of racing. We would have had a good classics team this year. I was very motivated to race.

What do you think of racing without the public?

That is the atmosphere that you enjoy most as a rider. It’s crazy at those races. Already at Omloop, there are big crowds, and it’s like that all the way to Flanders. When you see the crowds on the Kwaremont it’s like a soccer stadium. There is a little less public at Roubaix, but the race is so intense. Both races are so historical. They are my favorites. Anything can happen on those races.

You’ve raced plenty of classics, but very few grand tours, only two times the Tour?

It’s true. I was good enough to race grand tours, but it was not really a goal for me. I also missed a few grand tours due to health issues when I was supposed to race. I am glad I rode the Tour two times, but it’s too much stress every day for three weeks. With the classics, you race full-gas, and then in the evening you are home. The Giro was always too close to the classics, and the Vuelta came at the end of the season, and it was more of a climber’s race. I am a rider who prefers cooler temperatures. There’s too much heat in Spain. The Canadian one-day races are best for me. I am still doing a lot of race days. I usually race the Dauphiné and Eneco Tour, these races of one week, and I do a lot of smaller races of two or three stages. I am still racing 75 to 80 days a year.