Culture

Day in the life: Thomas De Gendt

Gravel rides, smashing Zwift, and trying to dodge the cookie jar: Breakaway specialist De Gendt is keeping the engine running in lockdown in Belgium.

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.

Belgian cyclist Thomas De Gendt is many things. Sure, he is a tireless worker on his Lotto Soudal team and he is most likely the greatest long-break rider of his generation. But mild-mannered De Gendt is an unlikely cyber hero in the time of the coronavirus.

Few cyclists have had as much ‘air-time’ on the social networks as De Gendt since the cycling season has ground to a halt. Last week, in a post that went viral, he showed a screenshot from a Zwift race he was participating in as he was essentially neutralized as his performance appeared suspicious. But he bounced back this past weekend, with a strong fourth-place performance in the first-ever virtual Tour of Flanders, his best performance ever for a rider who admits that he is one of the only Belgians that cannot ride cobbles.

VeloNews: Thomas, first off, congratulations on your best-ever Tour of Flanders performance. You finished fourth in the virtual Ronde last Sunday. But it was sort of ironic because I remember a couple of years ago you told me that you were one of the only Belgian cyclists that wasn’t good on the cobbles!

Thomas De Gendt: Yeah, but there were no real cobbles involved. That said, it was fun! It might not have been a real race, but it was nice to be able to get a result like that. It was still was plenty hard, plenty challenging. Every climb you had to go really full gas. I think on one climb I did 504 watts for five minutes. That’s really high even for me. And even in a race like the Tour of France I rarely hit those numbers. But that is the kind of effort I had to do just to keep up. I was doing 550-600 watts on most climbs and for the whole ride I think I did 410-watt average. It was not easy. It was short, but it was like a real race. It was like a time trial on rollers.

VN: It sounds like you had a good time with it. Was it fun?

TDG: Fun is maybe the wrong word! But considering the world we live in now, it was nice to do. With no races, this is the only thing we could do. I think it was nice for the sponsor and the fans. But fun on the rollers? No, I would not say that!

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

TDG: Well here in Belgium we can still ride outside, but we are encouraged to ride with the same training partner so most of the time I ride with my teammate Jasper De Buyst. I have been mixing it up. We did a 300-kilometer ride one day and have done some mountain bike rides. But I have been riding my rollers more than I usually do. I have been signing up for one or two races a week on Zwift. They are usually 40 minutes. They are not as hard as the virtual Tour of Flanders, but they are good to do for the high heart rate and high wattage numbers. It is hard to hit those numbers just in training, so I will do a race on Zwift and then go out for two or three more hours on the road. But it is really in my training program now to do a Zwift race so I can hit those high numbers.

Thomas De Gendt: Breakaway king turned Zwift-crusher. Photo: James Startt

VN: Well you had what can only be described as an ironic experience last week when you actually got blocked on Zwift because your numbers were too good. That must have been a surreal experience!

TDG: Well I don’t know if I was too good, but it is Zwift’s security system to catch cheaters. If you produce numbers like the pros but you are not a pro, it looks suspicious. You don’t really get kicked off, but you get neutralized, and your speed drops. I was pushing eight watts per kilo for almost two minutes. I was showing my teammate Tim Wellens how to use Zwift. He had never done a race before. I was attacking on a climb. I was doing nearly 600 watts for two minutes, and then, all of a sudden, I got a notification saying ‘either you missed your calling as a pro, or there is something wrong with your device.’ I was attacking and I was going to win, but then I got neutralized.

Thos-De-Gendt-Zwift
De Gendt was “neutralized” in Zwift for posting power numbers that the system determined to be suspicious.

VN: That’s hilarious because, well, you are a pro. Were you laughing?

TDG: Well I wasn’t laughing at the time, no! I really wanted to be in front of Tim and suddenly it wasn’t possible. I actually sent a message to Zwift and have been in contact with them since. There is a bit of a bug and their settings are too low. So they have made some updates and fixed the problems. It was an easy tweak really. They just had to raise the bar of the professionals. But it was designed to catch cheaters and there are a lot on Zwift. It’s very easy to lie about your weight or something, and all of a sudden get higher numbers.

VN: How does 600 watts for two minutes compare to a race situation for you?

TDG: Oh it’s high, but it is nowhere close to my record. I think I have done 660 watts for two minutes in a race. I don’t even remember what race it was, because to be honest, it is rare that we go all-out for two minutes in a race. Either we go one minute all out or we go for maybe five minutes really hard. I know I have done over 800 watts for one minute and for five minutes I have done 535 watts.

VN: Thomas, we saw you last in Paris-Nice. And you rode well. You got fourth in the time trial and you made the big break on the last day. You got caught on the last climb, but you still finished 11th. Obviously you were really starting to come into form. What races were you planning to do that have been canceled or postponed?

TDG: Well I was planning to do the Tour of Catalonia and the Tour of the Basque Country before doing the Giro d’Italia and then the Tour de France. As it stands, only the Tour remains a possibility.

VN: What are you doing today?

TDG: I will be going out with Jasper on a gravel ride for four or five hours. We are trying to do some things that we can’t usually do during the season. So we will go out on gravel and try to discover some new roads in our area. I live in a neighborhood in Ghent, within 30 kilometers of all of the great climbs of the Tour of Flanders.

De Gendt and teammate Jasper De Buyst have been exploring Belgium’s gravel roads. Photo: Thomas De Gendt

VN: Some riders who are in lockdown are just riding for intensity since they cannot ride outside. Others, who can still ride outside, are just focusing on endurance, since there are no real races to prepare for. You seem to be really trying to maintain both.

TDG: Well since I am older I really need a bit of intensity. If I want to get in top shape, I need to do a three-week camp in Spain, where I can do some really long climbs. But that is not possible right now, and we don’t even know when the first race will be. So I am just trying to maintain my condition. I don’t want my condition to drop down like in the winter. I am just trying to maintain my condition, and then, when we find out when we race again, I will do a bit more intensity. It’s not the most structured training, but it allows me to maintain. Doing a Zwift race might not be the most structured way for me to work on intensity, but it is a fun way.

VN: What indoor gear are you using?

TDG: I have a Tacx Neo from the team, although I am not sure what model to be honest.

VN: What is your motivation to train now?

TDG: If I train then I can eat whatever I want! I’m getting plenty bored around the house, and when I have a rest day I will just go in and out of the fridge or the cookie closet all day. So if I do even two hours of training I know that I can eat maybe an extra 1,500 calories. That’s big motivation!