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The fastest farmer in the Ardennes: Arnaud de Lie stays humble in 2023

De Lie almost saved Lotto-Soudal in 2022, but he's not getting ahead of himself as he continues to balance farming and winning in 2023.

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He’s being courted by Quick-Step and is touted for victory at the Amstel Gold Race.

But for now, sprinter sensation Arnaud de Lie isn’t saying goodbye to the family farm’s cows.

The 20-year-old De Lie is the fastest-rising talent in the pro peloton and almost saved Lotto-Soudal from relegation singlehandedly, though it wouldn’t work out in the end, in a ruthlessly efficient points-scoring mission in 2022.

Despite surging for victory on season debut at Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana on Sunday, the burly speedster isn’t getting too big for his farming boots. De Lie is postponing a grand tour debut in favor of old-school style steady progression and remains committed to the family flock.

“These two professions [farming and racing] require the same rigor. If you don’t milk the animals once, you expose yourself to big problems: if you don’t train every day, it’s the same,” De Lie told l’Equipe.

“On the farm, I learned never to count my efforts. I probably wouldn’t have become such a good racer if I hadn’t been a peasant boy.”

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Hailing from a tiny village deep in the Flemish Ardennes, De Lie was the terror of the 2022 second-tier races.

The baby-faced assassin amassed nine victories last year as well as nineteen further top-10s in the 1.1 and 1.Pro calendar in what was his rookie season. That haul put him sixth in the UCI rankings and contributed almost one-third of the total tally for the team now called Lotto Dstny.

An off-season balancing training and farming didn’t slow him down either.

De Lie blitzed straight back into the winner’s circle Sunday in the hilly Valenciana classic to score victory on his season debut.

“I’m really happy that I can reward my teammates with the first victory of the season. Of course, this win is important after a winter of hard work to be immediately ready for the first race,” De Lie said after Valenciana.

“That I could follow on the long climb showed that I took another step forward. This victory is a nice start, but I’m hungry for more.”

No grand tour just yet

De Lie beat some of the best – including Biniam Girmay – in 2022.

De Lie’s hunger will track through a 2023 calendar that expands his range from the lower-key schedule he saw last season.

Debuts at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix form the center of the Belgian’s spring in what will be his first full classics program and offer him the opportunity to prove his repeated pushback against the moniker “bunch sprinter.”

“There are many expectations for me, and I also have ambition myself. I still want to win a lot,” De Lie told l’Equipe. “The first goal is a nice classic.”

De Lie proved more times than worth counting that he can find a finish line quicker than most of the WorldTour.

But now just entering his sophomore season and with multiple grand tour stage-winner Caleb Ewan wearing the same blue and red jersey, De Lie is pulling the brakes on a three-week debut in 2023.

Lotto Dstny is skipping the Giro d’Italia, and Ewan is touted for the Tour de France.

De Lie and Lotto’s “softly-softly” approach brace back against the modern trend to push youth forward while they’re young.

“My body is not 100 percent ready for a grand tour yet, but there is also the mental part. I prefer to race for another week like in Paris-Nice,” De Lie said. “It is better to do a grand tour when I am mentally and physically ready for it. ”

Forsaking farming may come too soon

De Lie accepts a more focused approach to racing will inevitably follow his success

Belgium is buzzing at its latest hot talent.

Soudal Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere is eager to pounce when De Lie’s contract ends in 2024, and monument master Philippe Gilbert is hyping him as a future Amstel Gold Race winner.

Likewise, new team boss Stéphane Heulot is pinning his hopes on his fast-finishing farmer, even though he’s the youngest on Lotto’s roster.

But despite the hype and growing pressure to pile points into Lotto Dstny’s quest for promotion back to WorldTour, De Lie isn’t ready to throw in the farming for the foreseeable, at least.

“Mentally, I don’t even see it as a constraint anymore,” De Lie said of 6.30 am alarm calls to milk the cows.

“It imposes a rhythm of life on me. It gives me a little activity in the morning, to warm up. After the milking, I have lunch and I am already in good shape for the day. I’m not saying it’s not hard. But that’s good, it brings character.”

However, De Lie accepts a move away from his family at Lescheret and a full commitment to training is inevitable as the demands of racing begin to mount. And that move away from the family’s 450 cows could come sooner than De Lie would like.

The sophomore sensation amassed three times the number of points as his sprinter sidekick Ewan in 2022 and doesn’t look like slowing down soon.

A spot in the WorldTour – whether with Lotto, Quick-Step, or some other big-money bidder – seems inevitable. A more demanding multi-national program and bigger contract commitments will come with it.

And when that time comes, De Lie will need all the grit that comes from the 15-hour days of milking, hauling, and cleaning he began practicing in infancy.

“When you end your day here in winter, it’s snowing, it’s below zero, it builds character,” he said of the farm. “It’s no coincidence that I feel like growing wings on a bike when it’s raining and cold. I feel comfortable when it’s hard and I see others suffering.”

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