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In professional cycling, every team has a special, singular vibe — the personality of an organisation is reflected, portrayed, and generated by every single one of its members. Trek-Segafredo is tasteful. Orica-Scott is easygoing. Cannondale-Drapac is quirky. Team Sky is methodical (or so we thought). Movistar is traditional. And Lotto Soudal, in its very Belgian way, is humble.
There is not much ado surrounding the Lotto Soudal team. Its members tend to be accessible, discrete, and effective. When approaching some team buses, it’s common to spot sunglasses shielding the staff’s eyes, or to run into tape that separates the stars, tucked away in the bus, from those mortals waiting outside to get a photo or autograph.
That’s not the vibe at Lotto Soudal. The Belgian squad, led by soft-spoken manager Marc Sergeant, represents a country and a number of values with an unassuming behaviour, and gentle manners.
In February, on the morning of the Clásica de Almería, the spirit around the Lotto Soudal camp was unpretentious, as usual. The director, Herman Frison, was laughing with mechanics and soigneurs about some oddity they’d found with their team car. And the same mood carries over when asked about his star rider, Tim Wellens.
“I’ll tell you everything about Tim,” he says with a smile.“Do you remember the second day of the Challenge de Mallorca this year?”
Of course — that was the middle-mountain stage, when Wellens won in the rain.
“Yes. Well, with 35 kilometres to go he was at the front of the race in a group of seven with his roommate, Louis Vervaeke. He came to my car to talk about the tactics to follow. There was this climb left and I told him to wait for it to attack wisely so either Louis or him would get the victory. He was okay with the plan.”
“Suddenly, some rider looked back, saw he was several meters behind the group and took advantage of it to attack. Tim stopped talking to me and upped his pace, bridged back to this rival’s wheel and stared at him. He was like: ‘What are you doing? Did you think I was having a bad moment, that I was getting dropped? Wait and see.’ And off he went. For a bit the other rider tried to hang on, but eventually Tim broke him and went solo.
“That’s Tim. That’s his mindset. Even if I had asked him to wait until the last climb to attack, he felt this guy was defying him, and decided to seal the victory way before.
“Something similar happened a year ago, at the Tour of Poland. He attacked solo with 70 kilometers to go on a rainy, windy, cold day, and refused to wait for a pair of chasers that were following closely behind. He won that stage with a three-minute advantage. That’s him. That’s why he is so special.”
“Special” is the word we get from every person we ask about Wellens, who was born in 1991 in Sint-Truiden, a town of 40,000 in the Flemish province of Limburg. Yet when he sat down with us after his second victory at Challenge de Mallorca, he came across as a perfectly normal, down-to-earth guy. If anything, he speaks a bit fast, giving spot-on answers without much chitchat.
But, all in all, Wellens is just a talented 25-year-old who followed in the footsteps of his father Léon, a pro himself in the 1980s and ’90s, riding through the ranks at Lotto to become one of the most respected cyclists of the peloton — and one of the best regarded by hardcore fans. (A little trivia: In 1981, Wellens’ father, Léon, and his two uncles, Johan and Paul, all finished the Tour de France, the first time in history that three brothers finished a Grand Tour.)
Wellens’ talent is not up for debate. He’s not a prolific winner, but since turning pro in 2013 he’s racked up 12 pro wins, including overall titles at the Eneco Tour in 2014 and 2015, victory at the 2015 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, and stage wins at Paris-Nice and the Giro d’Italia last year. He’s also had a few close calls, including fourth at Il Lombardia in 2014, second at the Belgian road nationals in 2016, and, most recently, third at Strade Bianche on March 4 behind Michal Kwiatkowski and Greg Van Avermaet.
What is it that makes Wellens so special? His teammate, fellow young Belgian Tiesj Benoot, defines him as “a really focused guy who does his own thing.” Teammate Bart de Clercq points in the same direction, saying that Wellens is “110% professional and really devoted to training. He is giving everything for the sport to take the maximum out of it.”
The singularity arises when we speak about his personal side. “He is very self-confident, and also a bit introverted,” Benoot said.
“You have to know Tim a little bit before appreciating him because for starters he is a bit shy and doesn’t speak too much,” De Clercq added. “The better you know him, the more you realise he is a very good talker and a very funny guy.”
Wellens doesn’t dispute being labelled as “special”.
“I don’t know if that’s good or not,” he smiled. “I was shy during my first year in the team because, when I became a pro, I was living a dream. I was surrounded by all my idols, and it was hard for me to talk before them. Nowadays it’s different. When I don’t like something, I say it directly. Sometimes it may seem a bit harsh, but that’s the way I am with myself, too.”
But, above all, what makes Wellens so special is his style of racing. After telling us his anecdotes, Frison summed it up perfectly. “Most riders prefer to wait. Tim likes to go.”
When discussing the three WorldTour stage races he has won — two editions of the Eneco Tour and the 2016 Tour of Poland — Wellens quickly downplays his achievements by pointing out that, “every race that happens after the Tour de France is kind of a lesser race. The season builds up until the Tour. After it, you notice everyone is more relaxed, that the pressure and the attention are lower. It is easier to win a race after the Tour de France than before it.”
To Wellens, beating Van Avermaet, Gilbert, or Dumoulin, as he did at the 2014 Eneco Tour, was less significant because it happened in August instead of February.
That approach to measuring his own successes says a lot about Wellens, and his indifference to becoming a public figure. “He is not a pop star who yearns to be on the cover of every magazine,” said De Clercq. “In the end, he is aware that the results are the ones to define the rider, and therefore he doesn’t bother too much with publicity.”
When confronted with De Clercq’s words, Wellens agreed quickly. “I like to win, but for me [it] is not necessary to go on the podium, address the media, and all that. I don’t like to show myself too much. I just like victory.
“Publicity is always good, but I don’t really look for it,” he elaborated. “For instance, I’m not really active on social media. I want to improve a bit on that aspect, so I’ve decided to post a picture on Instagram every day, starting on January 1 … But I’m not really focused on that. I don’t really like it. It is already a big effort to publish a photo daily on Instagram.”
This resolution only lasted until January 31.
Wellens doesn’t seem concerned with his relationship with the media, either. “I’m very happy with the coverage I receive from the team’s press service and from the Belgian media,” he explained. “Maybe I don’t get that much recognition in the international scene. But, you know, what I care most about is Belgium. I remember I got some negative press during the 2015 Tour de France, but it’s true I rode badly there. They weren’t lying.”
Triumph, not fame, is the driving force behind Wellens’ racing career. Of his 12 wins, many have been either GC victories or courageous breakaways, and he’s determined to focus on the latter rather than the former.
“Back when I turned pro, the Belgian press said I might win a Grand Tour in the future,” Wellens said. “But, frankly, I don’t want to do that. My climbing is not good enough to match the best Grand Tour racers. Maybe I could aim for a top 10. But, you know, I race to win. I don’t like to ride all out for three weeks for the sake of being the seventh or eighth overall come the end of the race. I prefer to target victory on a specific stage.”
Wellens’ wish for the future is to become “a rider who excels in hard races.”
Frison embraces this mentality enthusiastically. “The harder the conditions, the better for Tim,” he said. “If there is bad weather and lumpy terrain, you never know how far he is going to get. That applies to races such as, say, Milano-Sanremo.”
Wellens cites another Italian monument, Il Lombardia, as a long-term goal. But the dream victories for him are the two Ardennes classics, Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — high-profile challenges that will require him to step up a level from previous seasons.
“I felt I’ve progressed every single year and I want to keep this upwards trend as long as possible,” he said, adding, “hopefully until I make it to the highest tier of riders.”
With that goal in mind he has moved to Monaco, where he follows closely the training plans set by his coach, Paul van der Bosch.
The 2017 season started for Wellens with two victories in Mallorca and a third in Andalusia, captured on the roads of Málaga where he trains every winter along with Jasper Stuyven, Louis Vervaeke, and Sean de Bie. At Strade Bianche — his first attempt at the Italian insta-classic — Wellens forced the winning move, drawing out Dumoulin, Durbridge, Kwiatkowski, Stybar, and Van Avermaet. That move didn’t stick, but another acceleration from Wellens saw only Kwiatkowski, Stybar, and Van Avermaet left to battle for the win.
“When Kwiatkowski had a gap we were looking at each other, but nobody reacted,” Wellens said. “It was a strong effort from Kwiatkowski. Afterwards we cooperated really well, but we couldn’t catch him. My tank was empty.
“When entering the last kilometre, I got in last position. Van Avermaet started the sprint and obviously was the best. I could pass Stybar before the last corner. It was an honest race, everyone got the place he deserved. Strade Bianche is a beautiful race. I am glad I rode it and will definitely come back.”
First, however, Wellens will race the full Ardennes schedule — races close to home, and close to his heart. (Last year, he finished a promising 10th at Amstel Gold Race.) After that, he’ll likely return to the Tour. Wherever he lines up, it’s certain he’ll be on the attack, racing to win.