Jurgen Van den Broeck seems to be the lost rider in the pre-Tour de France sweepstakes for 2012.
The Belgian finished a surprising fifth in 2010 (since bumped to fourth in the wake of Alberto Contador’s disqualification in his clenbuterol case), but Van den Broeck couldn’t follow up on that promising result after crashing out of last year’s Tour when he was hoping to make a run for the final podium.
For the 2012 Tour, with nearly 100kms of individual time trials, Van den Broeck’s name is hardly on anyone’s favorites list. Speaking to VeloNews.com, the tall, lanky Belgian, who is racing in the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal, says he still believes he can make a run for the top-3.
“It was a strong podium last year, but I think I had a chance,” Van den Broeck said of the 2011 Tour. “I was good, I was pretty close the whole, so maybe that was my chance. Now, though, I know I am capable. Now I know I can do it. The team has even more confidence in me.”
Van den Broeck is rare among contemporary Belgians in that he is focusing on grand tours rather than the one-day classics. The last Belgian to win the Tour was Lucien Van Impe back in 1976. Despite having Belgium rank second in terms of nation wins in Tour history, modern-day Belgian cycling has shifted toward the dramatic battles in the one-day classics.
Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert have become national heroes and millionaires thanks to their exploits in the monuments, something that doesn’t go lost on young, up-and-coming riders who see that success on the cobbles or in the Ardennes can earn them lucrative contracts.
It’s a lonelier rode in the grand tours, something Van den Broeck has hesitantly taken up the banner. Reserved and publicity shy, Van den Broeck admitted he struggled to deal with the media attention that exploded around him following his surprising fifth-place performance in the 2010 Tour, the best by a Belgian in more than a decade. He even resorted to working with a sports psychologist last year to help carry the media burden.
“I handle it better now,” he says of the media attention. “The press said I changed a lot last year, that I was more open. Now, I am more relaxed with it, knowing that everyone in Belgium is watching me at that time and that I need to be good during the Tour.”
Belgium once produced a steady line of Tour winners, starting from the early days of the Tour and running all the way through the golden era of Eddy Merckx into the mid-1970s.
The ever-increasing internationalization of the sport, with Tour winners coming from non-traditional racing countries such as the United States, Germany and Australia, have crowded the GC landscape.
Belgian sponsors backing Belgian teams wanted to see Belgian riders win on Belgian (and French) roads in the spring classics. Racing remains a top sport in Belgium and a generation of riders through the 1990s grew up realizing that their future lie in the one-day classics.
At 6-foot-1 and 69kg, Van den Broeck has helped break that chain thanks more than anything to his genetics. He’s a natural-born climber in a nation without any mountains.
“I was dreaming of (grand tour) success, but it was not so easy in Belgium in the past few years,” he said. “I try to fight against it and put it in the media that it’s not only about the classics. They always want to call Belgians just as classics riders, but cycling is more than the classics. It’s important not to push young guys into the cobbled classics if they’re capable of riding a grand tour. That’s not easy, though, in a flat country.”
Van den Broeck helped gain some early-career experience at Discovery Channel, where Dirk Demol and Johan Bruyneel gave their promising young compatriot some room to develop his stage-racing pedigree in small races without too much pressure.
“Those two years were super for me. They put in stage races like Murcia and Catalunya, smaller stage races where I could find myself and learn from guys who were going to the Tour,” he said of his Discovery Channel tenure. “I learned a lot from guys like Chechu (Rubiera) and (José) Azevedo. It was the best experience for a young pro. You learn how to prepare, how to work, how to rest, how to train. They showed that if you do the work, it’s pays back later. Once you learn the payback, you do the work with pleasure.”
A move to Lotto saw Van den Broeck finally break into the top-10, with seventh in the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
He went to the 2009 Tour as a helper for Cadel Evans, but was often seen riding for his own interests. When Evans moved to BMC in 2010, Van den Broeck stepped up with his break-out fifth place. That raised the expectations, and the pressure.
Last year, however, Van den Broeck seemed to be on the right track, and finally earned his first-ever pro win with a stage win at the Critérium du Dauphiné. A mountainous 2011 Tour only tipped favor more toward Van den Broeck, but a heavy crash in the ill-fated stage that also took out Bradley Wiggins and Alexander Vinokourov.
Van den Broeck crashed heavily, but thought he could carry on. He quickly realized his injuries were fatal to his Tour hopes.
“I crashed into the grass, I was feeling every rock on my body. I knew something was wrong, but you stand up and take your bike regardless. I got going, but two corners later, I couldn’t pedal,” he recounted. “I said, ‘it’s over. I cannot breathe anymore.’ I stopped, sat in the grass, unable to breathe, and at that moment, I knew it was over.”
Doctors later confirmed not only a fractured shoulder blade and two broken ribs, but also a partially collapsed lung. He watched the rest of the Tour from home and champed at the bit for what he knew was a missed opportunity.
“I knew I was good going into the Tour,” he said. “I watched the rest of the Tour. I was pissed off and hurting myself by watching it, but I didn’t want to miss it.”
Watching his former teammate Evans win the overall was difficult, especially when he realized he was in the best form of his life. A podium was no longer a pipe dream.
“I was sitting there in the grass, thinking, ‘f—, all that work, now everything’s gone.’ At that moment, you think it was all for nothing. But later you realize that you still have next year and races beyond,” he said. “I did 87,000 altitude meters of training to be ready for last year’s Tour. That was 30,000 more than the previous year. I knew I was ready.”
Van den Broeck rebounded in time for the Vuelta a España, but not yet fully recovered to be a factor in the fight for the overall. He later finished eighth, but getting the punishing Spanish tour into his legs laid a strong foundation for 2012.
For 2012, Van den Broeck is the anchor of the team for the stage races. André Greipel will carry team colors in the classics and sprint stages while he carries the weight of the team hopes in the GC. He signed a four-year contract that will keep him with the squad through 2015.
“The team has grown since Cadel was here. He pointed the team in a new direction for the grand tours,” he said. “Now the team puts energy into the grand tours. They know what to do, with training camps, my racing schedule. After Liége, they leave me on my own for altitude training to get ready for the Tour, to see the stages. They trust in me and know that I will be good.”
With nearly 100km in time trials for the 2012 Tour, Van den Broeck admits he will not be among the frontline favorites. Off-season work to improve his position and more time on the TT bike to gain depth will help him limit his losses against the clock.
For 2012, Van den Broeck is hoping to hit the repeat button from last year, but deleting the part involving his crash.
“You have to make the most of your career. By 35, you’re finished,” he said. “You have to take everything out of it in a short period. What’s a few years of sacrifice in a whole life?”