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Klaas Vantornout: The inscrutable cyclocross champion

You take off your shoes when you enter Klaas Vantornout’s trailer. The 33-year-old Belgian cyclocross champion may be at home on the bike in the muddiest conditions, but away from it he is fastidious, and the bright white leather upholstery and carpet of his home away from home at the…

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You take off your shoes when you enter Klaas Vantornout’s trailer. The 33-year-old Belgian cyclocross champion may be at home on the bike in the muddiest conditions, but away from it he is fastidious, and the bright white leather upholstery and carpet of his home away from home at the races shows no evidence of the mess outside. Nor does he, sitting comfortably on the sofa in a pair of well-tailored, light blue jeans and a white Sunweb-Napoleon Games team-issue jacket.

But there is a mess, both literal — Belgian cyclocross’s legendary mud — and figurative. Vantornout, halfway through his second career turn in the tricolor Belgian champion’s jersey, is suffering through one of his more unhappy cyclocross seasons in recent memory. That’s how it looks from the outside anyway. Vantornout, never the kind of rider who gushes effusively about the ups and downs of his season, is always hard to read.

His reticence might explain the paradoxical trajectory of his career. Vantornout, by any measure, is one of the most successful cyclocross racers in the world. Before this season of frustration came big results: two Belgian national championships (2013, 2015) and two silver medals at the world championships. In 2010, Vantornout finished second to Zdenek Stybar in Tabor, Czech Republic. In Louisville, three years later, Vantornout might well have won a hard-fought duel with Sven Nys if not for a momentary bobble near the end of the final lap. But in spite of all this he is probably the least well-know Belgian champion in cyclocross in decades, especially among fans of the sport outside cyclocross’ European heartland.

Riding for any other country, Vantornout’s achievements would rank as an unparalleled success, but in Belgium, he has seen his star occulted by men who will be remembered as legends of the sport: Sven Nys, Niels Albert, and — most likely — Wout Van Aert. It’s not that he is unpopular — far from it. Vantornout has a dedicated and vocal following, especially among fans from West Flanders, Vantornout’s home, and Belgians will always support a rider in the Driekleur, the tri-color national champion’s jersey.

But Vantornout, tall and lanky with close-cropped auburn hair, a sharp jaw, and deep-set, crystal blue eyes that are simultaneously penetrating and gentle, is undeniably one of the sport’s most inscrutable riders. He is soft-spoken and seems intensely thoughtful, but he possesses neither the gregariousness that powered Bart Wellens’s popularity nor the pure, unstoppable dominance that is behind Sven Nys’s extraordinary following.

In fact, Vantornout’s problem of public perception — if he has one at all — seems to be that he’s just an introvert, a thoughtful, reflective guy focused mostly on how to make himself better in a sport known for colorful, outspoken characters.

“Not a lot of people know me,” he says. “They know me only from here, from the races, but outside they don’t know me. I’m a normal guy, I’m playing with my little girl — she’s now five years, it’s very nice. She helps me forget about all the pressure and the ‘crosses.”

Sport rewards winning overall, but it also rewards the big personalities. Vantornout, inward-looking by nature, is perennially seen as an outsider, in spite of being a highly capable rider. To the Belgian media, he is easy to cast as the heavy, the guy who races angry and — maybe — a bit dangerously.

It’s an image a recent report by the Belgian TV network Sporza suggested, and one he has sometimes even reinforced himself, used to his advantage in the psychological battle that can help win the physical one.

Maybe so, but the image also seems to have cost him this year. In an unusual turn for a Belgian champion, Vantornout did not receive a start contract for the Bpost Bank Trofee series, one of world’s biggest cyclocross series, along with the Superprestige and World Cup.

In Belgium, where a significant fraction of cyclocross stars’ annual income derives from appearance fees, it was a costly turn that touched off a minor scandal at the start of the season. Vantornout’s struggles did not help either. He missed the second World Cup stop, in Valkenburg, Netherlands, then returned the following weekend only to be injured in a heavy fall at the Superprestige stop in Zonhoven. The injury cost him a start at the Koppenberg, one of the biggest races in cyclocross.

“It’s not my best period, you can see it in the results,” he told VeloNews in an interview earlier this season, in the middle of that downward skid.

“In cyclocross, you know, you must be 100 percent in condition, and if it’s not 100 percent you feel it directly from the start,” he said. “Especially with the young people now. It was necessary. I was ill; they were taking my blood, and it was very bad.”

It was a rough patch that the Belgian press blew far out of proportion, he said then.

“I was a week a little bit ill,” says Vantornout of his brief step back from racing in October. “It was not very ill, but every day the press and the newspaper is ‘blah blah blah,’ and it’s making me not popular. But it’s always the same with the press and me. When I’m doing something, they are there.”

Now, after three rough months, he seems to have turned the conversation around. On the Formula One track in Francorchamps-Spa — a race that in its second year has emerged as one of the most difficult in the sport — Vantornout was at the front of the chase, battling with Sven Nys and teammate Kevin Pauwels for podium places behind cyclocross’s new king, Wout Van Aert. Vantornout missed out on the podium by one spot. In the Namur World Cup race, he again finished fourth.

Reportedly, Vantornout took some motivation from world champion Mathieu van der Poel’s own struggles with a knee injury earlier this season. Vantornout said that he and Van der Poel shared some common interests outside the sport and had talked periodically during the early part of the season.

Van der Poel, 20, who himself took a big step forward with an impressive win in Namur, told reporters that Vantornout was one of the only riders from whom he had received real support during his absence from racing.

For Vantornout, this all comes as a most welcome change. The Belgian Driekleur weighs heavy when the results aren’t there.

“When you are good, everything is good,” he says. “The hardest moment in cyclocross with the jersey is when you are riding in 10th position. Then it’s very hard mentally.”

Still, he says, whatever his frustrations have been, he feels little pressure as a result of his status as champion of what amounts to the national sport. He takes pleasure in the results — when they flow — and puts it out of mind when the results aren’t there.

“I’m 33 years old,” he says. “I have a lot of experience with it. It’s a hard world, it’s a small world, but I’m 33 years, and I’m so long in the world of cyclocross. I know the world. If I win a big race, that’s for me the best days. I’m two times the Belgian champion. Last year I was winning in Gavere, a very nice race, and I was alone at the finish.”

It’s hard to imagine that win in Gavere will be Vantornout’s last, especially with his form coming around just as the 2015-16 season approaches its climax. But whatever happens, Vantornout says he has few regrets. He says would like to earn a set of rainbow stripes, especially at what will probably be his last championships on home soil, in Zolder, Belgium, later this season. But he acknowledges that will be a hard race to win, and won’t complain about a career that has taken him about as far anybody could ever hope to go.

“I started cycling when I was 13 years old,” he says. “And from when I was 16 I was more and more riding in the cyclocross, but then it was not so popular like now. Now you have all the young teams, every big team has a young team for the nieuweling and the juniors, but I was doing it on my own. My parents paid for my bike, they brought me to the races. Now if you are 16, they give him two bikes and six pairs of wheels. It’s a little bit crazy.

“I’m proud of my career. … It was a very difficult way, but step by step I was growing. My rivals from the juniors or the [under-23s], they are all stopped now and I was always, every year, going step by step higher and higher.”

Then, uncharacteristically for a rider known for the stony intensity he brings to the starting line every week, he cracks a joke at his own expense.

“Maybe now the step is down and down,” he laughs.

It’s a joke, but a more serious undercurrent flows beneath it.

“I can’t race so many more years on this level,” he says. “Maybe I do my best the next two years. I have a contract until the end of 2016, then we see. I don’t know. [I’ll be] 35 and I won’t ride until I’m 40. I can’t do [what Sven Nys did] he’s a special man.”

Whatever the next two seasons bring, whether they are successful or the frustrations continue, whether they are his last two seasons or not, Vantornout will not complain. He is lucky, he has lived a dream life, and he knows it.

“Yes,” he says, acknowledging the stress of the past several seasons. “Yes, you must have results and you have a lot of pressure. Yeah, that’s part of the job. But every job has something negative. This is my hobby and I can live from it. My bike [has always been] my hobby, and now it’s my job the last eight years. I’m a happy man.”