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Confessions of a lead-out man: Iljo Keisse on helping Boonen, Gaviria

The Quick-Step Floors rider talks with VeloNews about helping the peloton's fast men sprint across the finish line.

SAN JUAN, Argentina (VN) — Iljo Keisse has become the ultimate sprint lead-out, guiding and understanding the secrets of sprinters such as Tom Boonen, Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, and Fernando Gaviria.

The Quick-Step Floors rider rules the Six Days of Ghent track cycling event — he has 26 victories — but he has put his speed and technical expertise to work for the stars.

“They are all different but you learn from every single sprint. The older you get the more experienced you get,” Keisse told VeloNews.

“I think my background on the track is for sure an advantage for the lead-out because you learn to see and feel races on the track. I’m never the last man, I don’t have the speed or power, but I’m usually the second-to-last man and I’m able to stay calm and read the situation to find the gaps and keep cool until the right moment.”

Keisse pulled big power-men Alessandro Petacchi, Boonen, and Kittel to victories. Both riders raced in Quick-Step’s colors until last year.

“The most demanding? Marcel Kittel. He does not like the fight before the sprint and wants to be in good position and everything really planned,” Keisse said. “He also speaks about it every night before the race and says we want to do it like this or like this, and that puts it a bit more pressure on you instead of just freestyling the sprints.

“The most beautiful athlete was Tom Boonen. I really admire him as a cyclist. Tom and Marcel Kittel were more or less the same, big power guys, and so they’re not going aero.

“I like that [aero ability] in a sprinter because I would be doing it like that like Fernando or Cavendish or Caleb Ewan. I saw things in the Giro last year with Fernando and he has no fear. He has the same track background like Cavendish and he always finds the right gaps and the right moment. That and his age make him really special.”

Keisse looks back with pride at the win with Kittel in the 2016 Tour de France. Kittel won only once in that race, but it was a hard-fought victory.

“I felt that I had a big role in that win. On the small climb in the final, Marcel and I were really tired on the climb, but we came back hard on the downhill and came to the front at just the right moment to beat Bryan Coquard by a millimeter.”

Keisse now gives his attention to Gaviria. Last year, he helped the 23-year-old Colombian win four stages and the points jersey in the Giro d’Italia. This year, he will work for him in the classics and the Tour de France.

“I enjoyed it last year with Gaviria, leading with Max Richeze. Instead, with Cavendish, I wasn’t in the train, but pulling all day,” continued Keisse.

“It’s very tense? Yes, of course, but it’s always normal because there’s a whole team working for them. It’s different for the mountain guys in the classification; they have more time to make up something if they have a bad moment. They can make up something later. For a sprinter, it all happens within 10 seconds, and it’s all about pressure and how you handle it.”

Gaviria shot into the headlines after beating Cavendish twice in the 2015 Tour de San Luis. His track palmarès includes two Omnium gold medals at the world championships. His road racing career includes 26 wins.

Keisse is currently working for Gaviria in Argentina at the Vuelta a San Juan, where the pair is adding more victories to Gaviria’s tally.

Sprinters “are all crazy, you have to be to win. You have to be able to stop thinking about the race and just remain focused on what you need to do and how to do it and just go for it,” Keisse said.

“Fernando’s really young and he’s showing a lot of class already. A lot of potential. He’s dreaming about the classics and he really likes those races, then he will do the Tour de France.”