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Cycling fans crammed the streets of downtown Antwerp for the start of the Tour of Flanders. They pushed into the narrow lanes and climbed atop stone pillars hoping for a glimpse of their country’s most famous athlete. Half an hour before the start, Tom Boonen strode across the main stage to wave to the crowds one final time.
Amid the chaos, a Belgian cyclist named Bert Van Lerberghe stood by his Sport Vlaanderen team camper and adjusted his bike in relative solitude. Van Lerberghe, 24, looked like the prototypical Belgian cycling hero — his thick torso connected to bulging hamstrings and calves. Van Lerberghe’s recent palmarès — he was 13th at Gent-Wevelgem — points toward WorldTour success. Someday in the near future, he may stand atop the Flanders stage amid roaring applause. If that day comes, a new Flemish youngster with dreams of cycling greatness will fill Van Lerberghe’s spot on the Sport Vlaanderen team.
“Becoming a [professional] has been my dream since I was 12 years old,” says Van Lerberghe, who grew up in Kortrijk. “I started to see it as [a realistic] potential at 16 or 17, and since then I have lived the professional life.”
Across Flanders, thousands of children grow up with dreams of cycling greatness. Every year these kids fill the country’s junior racing ranks and step onto a conveyor belt aimed at cycling’s top echelon. Like Boonen, Greg Van Avermaet, and the country’s other heroes, they enter a Flemish cycling system that is designed to discover raw talent and then mold it into world-beating perfection.
Along their journey, Flemish children participate in hyper-competitive junior and under-23 races that weed lesser riders from the pack. They pass through multiple talent identification camps and undergo frequent physiological tests. They race on development teams that boast bigger budgets and stronger leadership than many professional squads elsewhere in the world. And they receive direct financial support from the Flemish government.
This refined development system explains why the small region of 6.4 million people is perhaps the strongest cycling hotbed on the planet. Flanders is the land that gave the sport Eddy Merckx, Freddie Maertens, Rik Van Looy, Johan Museeuw, and Boonen, as well as hundreds of professionals with less flashy names but equally long careers. Two-thirds of all WorldTour teams have at least one Flandrien on their roster. And as Flanders bids farewell to Boonen, perhaps no country is better equipped to find his replacement.
“Cycling is part of the history of Flanders. If you tell your parents you want to race a bike, they understand,” says Trek-Segafredo’s budding star Jasper Stuyven. “There is a lot of opportunity to race from when you are a very young age, and a lot of support. People respect it.”
LOCATED IN A LEAFY corner of Gent, the Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx velodrome stands amid the sprawling Sport Vlaanderen complex. The training facilities and stadiums are funded by the Flemish government with the aim of developing Olympic athletes across a wide range of disciplines, from soccer to swimming.
The Merckx center houses the modest offices of the Flemish Cycling Federation and its small army of coaches, directors, and staffers. On most days the track is abuzz with talent identification camps or training sessions for the facility’s in-house team of government-backed athletes. When VeloNews visits the complex, things are quiet — the team is away at a competition. We are greeted by sports director Koen Beeckman, who rode for CSC-Tiscali and Lotto-Adecco as a professional, and given a tour of the track, gym, and gear locker.
“More and more riders are coming to cycling because they see the popularity of the heroes,” Beeckman says. “For us it’s good that we have a large amount of young kids that start. Our goal is to make them into good bike riders.”
Each year approximately 2,500 kids between the ages of eight and 15 purchase a racing license from Flemish cycling to participate in local kermesse events, and mountain bike, cyclocross, and BMX races. It’s Beeckman’s job to determine whether any of these youngsters has the natural gifts to progress to the professional ranks.
He scans results sheets and reaches out to his network of coaches, team directors, and race promoters to compile a list of the most talented juniors. The riders who make his list receive invitations to come to a talent identification camp at the velodrome. During a typical year, Flemish cycling holds five development camps, called “talent days,” and works with about 600 kids.
At each camp Beeckman and his coaches perform a wide range of physiological tests for coordination, leg strength, body composition, and balance. Then, coaches put cyclists on a bike to measure their cadence, power output, and VO2 levels.
“We are not just looking for race winners,” Beeckman says. “We look at what the growth potential is, what they could be like at their peak physiology, because it is very difficult to predict a growth spurt.”
The outcome of these tests does not guarantee WorldTour success, of course. Puberty often erases or alters an athlete’s strength and endurance. Instead, the camps are the entry gate for athletes into Flemish cycling’s network. Talented juniors attend multiple camps throughout their teenage years; Beeckman and his coaches chart their physical progression as they grow. This physical portrait tells the coaches more than results, Beeckman says.
“We tell the clubs that at that young age results don’t count — at 13 some boys win simply because they have [gone through] puberty,” Beeckman says. “Cycling at that age should just be about fun.”
The racing is fun, but it’s also hyper-competitive. Flemish road races for 12-year-olds are 30 kilometers in length, with the distances growing each year. At the age of 17, kids start racing over the famed cobblestone climbs of the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem. By the time they are in the U23 ranks, they regularly compete in races that are nearly 200 kilometers in length.
Along the way, the Flemish Cycling Federation steers the best juniors toward the best U23 teams. Federation coaches teach the kids about proper training and racing techniques. They also invite the top performers onto international teams for world championships, WorldTour events, and lesser races.
It’s an imperfect system, and talented riders do fall through the cracks. Stuyven never participated in any of the federation’s road camps. Instead, he started racing for a local club at the age of 12, and won his first race when he was 13. At 15, Stuyven began winning large races outside of Belgium, and at 17 he won the UCI Junior Road World Championships and junior Paris-Roubaix.
Stuyven raced for the federation at a few track events, however his development took place largely under the guidance of bigger-budget U23 teams — Lotto and then Bontrager-Livestrong.
“I had great support and good coaches with [my teams] so I didn’t do a lot of the [national team] camps,” Stuyven says. “You can start racing in your local team and get that support.”
Beeckman admits that the Flemish Cycling Federation cannot find and then develop every diamond. In truth, the federation does not need to. Mega-talents like Stuyven are scooped up by powerful Flemish U23 squads, which have the resources and WorldTour connections to oversee their progression. Instead, the federation focuses its resources on the second- and third-tier athletes who lack the palmarès to generate international interest at such a young age.
Every year, the federation invites 15 college-aged riders to join its in-house national team at the Merckx velodrome. The athletes receive free housing and a stipend as they attend university in Gent and then train with Flemish coaches seven days a week. The program’s most recent graduate, Jasper De Buyst, is a budding sprinter on Lotto-Soudal.
The federation also works with Belgium’s Bureau of Employment (VDAB) to distribute wage stipends to young cyclists who are pursuing professional careers. The Federation can grant up to 60 of these stipends, which pay out 300 euros a month to male and female cyclists between the ages of 20 and 26. The small stipend is often the lifeline that helps a cyclist stay in the sport for a few crucial extra years, rather than abandon the sport to go to work.
“This is for riders who are still living at their parents’ house who are close to becoming a professional,” Beeckman says. “They look to us for support, and we can help them pursue the dream.”
JASPER DULT SMILES as he recalls his career in the Flemish junior cycling ranks. Dult started racing at just eight years old and frequently faced off against Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), and Belgium’s other top talents. The junior races were competitive yet fun, Dult says, and the best riders usually won. The level of competition took a huge step up once Dult entered the U23 ranks. The racing became more of a challenge and less fun.
“The race becomes very nervous,” Dult says. “The big riders know when they need to come to the front.”
Dult scored impressive results — he was 10th at the U23 Tour of Flanders — yet the competition within this cutthroat scene eventually weeded him out. While he still participates in some U23 races, Dult is now pursuing a graphic design career with Eddy Merckx bicycles.
Dult is one of hundreds of young Flemish riders to abandon his professional ambitions at the U23 level. As the springboard for Europe’s professional ranks, the Flemish U23 scene is often more competitive and more complex than the professional leagues in other countries. The largest Belgian U23 squads boast budgets of up to 300,000 euros; they travel in hulking busses with sponsor logos emblazoned along their sides.
The competitive season runs from February through October, and teams race both domestically and abroad during this time. Squads employ advanced strategies and tactics, so the strongest teams often dominate the races.
“Every week in Belgium we start another big race,” says Wim Feys, director of the EFC-LR Vulsteke U23 team. “And we race the same parcours as Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Il Lombardia, Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.”
[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Jasper Stuyven”]”Cycling is part of the history of Flanders. If you tell your parents you want to race a bike, they understand.”[/pullquote]
Unlike junior races, where the strongest riders generally win, the U23 ranks present a trickier test. The best riders are evenly matched and even lower-tier athletes can compete. Rather than races of attrition, the events take on a tactical feel.
The U23 teams cannot pay their riders, so instead they lure top junior talent with the prospect of WorldTour connections and boosts in performance. The bigger U23 squads have relationships with testing laboratories, and frequently put their riders through VO2 and other tests, the results of which are passed along to pro teams. Lotto-Soudal and BMC both sponsor their own Flemish U23 squads. EFC’s list of recent graduates includes Quick-Step’s Yves Lampaert and LottoNL-Jumbo’s Floris De Tier.
After luring talented juniors, these U23 teams must teach these riders how to survive and then win these races. According to Feys, this is where the real challenge begins.
“A good junior already has his own fan club, and every fan and family member thinks they know how [the rider] should be racing,” Feys says. “Young riders listen to everyone, so they come to us and think they already know everything.”
The knowledge Feys must download to his new U23 recruits is deep. Riders must learn to navigate a race caravan and to ride alongside team cars. They must learn basic tactics, such as blocking. Away from the races, young riders must adapt proper nutrition and training techniques. Sometimes this learning curve weeds out more talented riders who simply can’t follow directions.
Feys rarely enters a major race with a dedicated team leader. He does not want some riders to become accustomed to the domestique role, while others develop egos as protected stars. Instead, Feys wants them to ride with aggression in the bunch. Should one rider attack up the road, his teammates know to block the group behind. When a group is caught, another rider instinctively knows to make his move.
“By 18, 19 you can tell if he has everything to be a professional racer,” Feys says. “He has the talent, but most importantly he has the mentality. He listens. He has respect. He wants to get better.”
BERT VAN LERBERGHE FINISHED the Tour of Flanders in 114th place, 11:31 behind winner Philippe Gilbert. A week later at Paris-Roubaix, Van Lerberghe rode his way into the second major chase group, finishing in 30th place, 2:24 behind Greg Van Avermaet.
At first glance, the results do not resonate with eye-popping success. Yet in each race, Van Lerberghe outperformed WorldTour riders with more experience and bigger paychecks. During each race he showed directors from WorldTour squads that he could not only finish these races, but also perform the job of a support rider.
Gaining attention for Van Lerberghe and his teammates is the goal of the Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise Pro Continental team. Funded largely by the Flemish government, Sport Vlaanderen has been a fixture in the major classics races since 1994, taking the name Topsport-Mercator, Chocolate Jacques, and Vlaanderen-Eddy Merckx along the way. The team’s graduates include a who’s who of Flemish cycling greats: Tom Steels, Mario Aerts, Leif Hoste, Stijn Devolder, Sep Vanmarcke, Thomas De Gendt, Oliver Naesen, and Edward Theuns, among others.
The Sport Vlaanderen team represents the final step within the Flemish development system. Upon exiting the U23 ranks, most budding professional cyclists face a stark future. WorldTour squads snap up a paltry few riders, so the majority of riders spill into the Pro Continental ranks, hoping to snag results at lower-tier races across the globe.
Sport Vlaanderen acts as a lifeline for Flemish U23 graduates who aren’t yet ready for the jump to the WorldTour. The 22-man squad pays each rider the UCI minimum salary of 27,500 euros a year, and provides them with coaches, team directors, and soigneurs. More importantly, the team guarantees these riders access to Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and other major classics.
“The best Belgian U23 riders do not come to our team — they are seduced away by money to the WorldTour,” says Hans De Clercq, the team’s longtime director. “We work with guys from the next level down. We can help them.”
Twice a runner-up at the Belgian national championships, De Clercq called it quits on his own 12-year career in 2005. Like Feys and Beeckman, he spends hundreds of hours each year poring over results pages and attending U23 and lower-level races, looking for talented youngsters. Similar to the other men, De Clercq also looks deeper than the results page; often he scans a race for impressive feats of strength and smarts that do not translate into an overall ranking.
“You see a guy in a club race close a two-minute gap, he is a first-year U23, he finishes outside the top-10,” De Clercq says. “You remember that name. He has a big engine.”
Sport Vlaanderen performs the usual physical tests on its new recruits, yet by the time the riders have reached this level, their physical metrics are established. The team is not a place for improving a rider’s physiology; instead, the team is akin to a finishing school for bike racers. Rather than building a man’s engine, at Sport Vlaanderen he refines his racing style and learns the nuances of WorldTour racing. And then, several times a year, riders get to test themselves in the real arena.
Every year, Sport Vlaanderen riders catch the eyes of WorldTour squads. De Gendt’s second place at the 2010 Brabantse Pijl earned him a spot on Vacansoleil the next year; Vanmarcke’s second at Gent-Wevelgem that year earned him a place on the Garmin team.
“With some of these guys, you see they are ready immediately,” De Clercq says. “After two months of racing they are ready to be pros.”
De Clerq does not know which current crop of Sport Vlaanderen riders will graduate to the WorldTour, and which riders will fade into history. Van Lerberghe may someday be a champion; he may also someday work in an office and tell war stories from his pro cycling career. Every few years, a new talent enters the squad with the personality and potential to become a new cycling hero for Flanders, to stand atop the stage at the Tour of Flanders and inspire youngsters to take up the sport.
It’s a self-fulfilling system that ensures a continuous stream of young talent finds its way into the ranks. So long as Flanders keeps searching for the next Tom Boonen, the region will always find him.