ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, the rider whom some call Belgium’s next Tom Boonen, is sitting nervously on the bubble, waiting to see if he’ll start the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday.
Lining up Wednesday before the start of stage 2 at the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, the 23-year-old van Keirsbulck (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) admitted it’s not easy muscling onto the classics selection for one of the peloton’s deepest teams during Flanders week.
“We will decide this evening after the race. We can start only eight riders. I hope that I am in it,” Van Keirsbulck told VeloNews. “We have a lot of classics riders, and everyone is in good shape. It’s a big fight to get onto the selection.”
It’s easy to see how people compare the strapping Van Keirsbulck, at 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, to Boonen. Both are big, brawny Flemish riders who bash the cobblestones. They have a similar riding style on the bike, so much so that Belgian TV announcers sometimes cannot tell the difference between the two when calling a race.
All this talk of the “new Tom Boonen” has Van Keirsbulck understandably wary.
“The people say you are the new Tom Boonen, but you need to do it, you need to win,” Van Keirsbulck continued. “It’s motivating, but it’s also a little scary.”
Leaning over his handlebars before the start of Wednesday’s stage in Zottegem, he was almost anonymous in the crowd.
That could soon change. Following Wednesday’s stage, he was within striking distance of overall victory. More importantly, he’s hoping to race both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He clearly accepts he would be in a helping role in both races, especially with the stacked Omega Pharma classics team that includes not only Boonen but top favorites Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar.
Yet Flanders and Roubaix are unique races, where the strong and the lucky survive. There’s no waiting and no mercy once the battle begins in earnest.
“I am a classics rider, and I hope in the future, in a couple of years, I will keep growing stronger, and I can help the team, and even ride for myself one day,” he said. “We will see.”
There’s no doubt that he comes from good cycling stock. He’s the grandson of Benoni Beheyt, a Belgian pro who won the world championship in 1963 and a stage in the 1964 Tour de France.
A strong time trialist, Van Keirsbulck popped up on the talent scouts’ radars five years ago with solid results in the cut-throat Flemish junior racing scene. After winning two Belgian junior national time trial titles, the top teams came calling.
Omega Pharma picked him up as a stagiaire in 2010, and he turned pro with the team in 2011. For any young Belgian, Omega Pharma is the New York Yankees of cycling.
“It’s very good with this team. You learn so much, about getting position before the important climbs, and in Roubaix, things about pressure in the tires, these little details that come with time,” he said. “Tom has been very nice. Everyone is always joking at the dinner table at night. It’s like a big family.”
He popped for a win in his rookie season, in 2011, at the Omloop van het Houtland at the ripe age of 20. In 2012 and 2013, he rode full seasons sprinkled with top 10s, including four second-place results.
A strong motor, Van Keirsbulck is often part of Omega Pharma’s team time trial successes, and made his grand tour debut in 2013, finishing the Vuelta a España in 125th.
Things are clicking into gear this year. In early March, he won a stage and finished second overall at the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen.
He knows the pressure is building for a breakout ride, but that’s easier said than done on a team so deep with ambitious, talented riders, all elbowing their way toward team leadership.
“On this team, it’s not so easy, because it has all the best riders, so I try to do my best, and work for the team,” he said. “Sometimes it comes together, and you can get lucky, and win a nice race.”
He’s already had a taste of the big-time cobbles, riding to 67th in his Flanders debut in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, he started Roubaix, crashing out of both editions.
As Boonen, 33, and compatriot superstar Philippe Gilbert, 31, grow older, Belgian fans and media are already hungry for new talent to take their places.
Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), 25, already a proven winner, is best positioned to step up as Belgium’s next great classics rider, but many see similar qualities lurking inside Van Keirsbulck’s bulking frame.
But the pressure that comes with being the “next superstar” is immense. Right now, Van Keirsbulck seems content, lost anonymously in the pack, doing his work, learning his trade, and biding his time.
“They say it, but I also need to do it,” he said, referring to the hype. “I hope I can do it. It’s like a dream to become a big rider like Tom and the others.”
After rolling out from the start, Van Keirsbulck made it safely in with the front group, helping Gert Steegmans into the overall lead. He also slotted into position for a chance at victory, in seventh overall at nine seconds back. Thursday’s 14.3km individual time trial will decide everything at De Panne. Before that, though, Omega Pharma sport directors and management are set to decide the team’s final Flanders roster Wednesday night. Van Keirsbulck is hoping he’ll be there.