Dylan Groenewegen: Charging through the chaos while holding tightly to the past
Dylan Groenewegen grew up in a working class family, but his first racing bike was made out of the finest Columbus tubing, fitted with Campagnolo components, and painted with his favorite colors — purple, yellow, and white.
The knee-high machine was handcrafted by renowned frame-maker Ko Zieleman. Dutch racing legends like Hennie Kuipers and Leo van Vliet had been riding on Zielemans for years, but what made Groenewegen’s different was that he was only seven years old and had yet to enter his first race.
Years later, when asked about being the only seven-year old with a custom frame, he says with a laugh, “At the time, it seemed perfectly normal.”
Ko Zieleman, Groenewegen’s grandfather, is present when the topic comes up. “It’s better than a Bianchi,” he mutters, half-jokingly, referring to Groenewegen’s much-lauded professional bike as a member of the LottoNL-Jumbo team.
There is a ring of original cobbles in the park in front of Groenewegen’s apartment, more similar to the kinderkopjes of Belgium than the Napoleonic-stones of Paris-Roubaix. Years ago, Groenewegen rode his little Zieleman on these stones, no doubt dreaming of the day he would race in the Tour de France. When he was finished with his laps, he’d stop at the corner store, buy bubble-gum. and sit on a bench, resting his legs. Eventually, his mother would call him for dinner and he’d lug his custom-made bike three stories up to their apartment. He owns a house now, just outside of Amsterdam, and savors the garage and the ground floor.
Nico Verhoeven, the race director for LottoNL-Jumbo, once said that team management had groomed Groenewegen to be a sprinter, though they knew he could conquer cobbles and small climbs. I wonder aloud if this career trajectory makes him happy.
Groenewegen hesitates, telling me that when he was younger he wanted to be a climber, but then he raced with the pros, reality set in, and he focused on sprinting. Speaking of youthful ambition is, of course, relative with Groenewegen, who is not yet 24.
As we walk along the cobbles in front of his childhood home, I ask how important the spring races in Belgium are to him personally — he was fifth this year at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Feet tapping the cobbles underneath, there is a longing in his response.
“I love the classics,” he says, and I can see that longing comes not only from his DNA, but also from his youth.
There is a reason the Giro d’Italia and Ronde van Vlaanderen have recently celebrated their centenaries. Professional road racing in Europe is tied to the first World War — to anxious, shell-shocked soldiers freshly returned from carrying messages from trenches to Lowland commanders, men who relished the cobblestone climbs, redemption through repeated physical confrontation. For many European men who survived both World Wars, their passion for cycling was a kind of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ko Zieleman learned frame-building from his father who, in 1928, had opened his own shop in the Rivierenbuurt neighbourhood of Amsterdam. The streets of the Rivierenbuurt are named for World War II heroes like Churchill and Roosevelt, but those names were placed there retroactively. Ko’s neighborhood was originally built for veterans and displaced people of the first World War — those who had seen the horrors of trench warfare and turned to socialism not only in their politics but in their architecture and urban planning as well. Bicycles themselves were seen as an egalitarian ideal — simple, efficient, and cheap.
Nazism spread and many Jewish families fled Germany and came to the Rivierenbuurt. As Groenewegen and I walk, we pass bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk commemorating the Jewish families who were removed from their houses by Nazis. Groenewegen was raised in the same apartment building where Anne Frank and her family lived before they fled to the center of Amsterdam to hide, and where her famous journal was written. In the black-and white photos of Anne Frank’s early days in Amsterdam, you can also see the park where Groenewegen practiced, strewn with furniture and clothes, cast out of Jewish homes by Nazi soldiers.
I also live in the Rivierenbuurt. My sons ride their bikes where Anne Frank played and where Groenewegen rode. Every so often they will pause in front of Anne Frank’s statue or sit on one of the benches where Groenewegen rested. From the butcher to the man who drives the ice-cream truck, my boys interact daily with the working-class people of the Rivierenbuurt, men and women like Ko Zieleman who descended from those who experienced the neighborhood being purged. A few years ago, when my son got a flat tire in front of the Groenewegen’s bike store, Dylan’s father Gerrie came out, pumped it up, and advised my son the best places to ride on the road to avoid broken glass, advice my son still practices to this day.
From the outside, the Groenewegen bike shop is an unassuming, single-window store sinking under the weight of the bustling apartments above. A plain font, denoting the family name stretches over a backdrop of Groenewegen’s winning jerseys. The Groenewegen shop is in a city where bike shops are ubiquitous, one on almost every block.
Like Ko and his father before him, Gerrie Groenewegen is the third generation to develop his own frame. There is very little advertising for the Groenewegen frame however and when I asked Groenewegen about it, his response was fitting for a neighborhood built upon social ideals and equanimity. He really wanted his father to self-promote, to get out there and market the Groenewegen frames, but quietly conceded that Gerrie was close to retirement; he had provided for his family, he had been a good father, and that any potential recognition wouldn’t necessarily make him any more content.
Inside, the store has the feeling of a quiet shrine, similar to the tributes to minor saints that travelers come across in small towns. Groenewegen has won the Dutch national championship, Brussels Cycling Classic, Arnhem-Veenendaal Classic, and stages in the Tour of Yorkshire, Eneco Tour, Tour of Britain, and Tour of Norway, but the trophies are on the back wall, behind the security grate.
When I ask about his own idols, Groenewegen tells me he doesn’t have many, a typical sober Dutch response. He will admit to having had a poster of Mario Cipollini on his wall, just above his bed, as a child.
Cipollini was the grandfather of the modern sprinter, a brash yet sympathetic Italian who built his fortune around speed and, as a result, infuriated all-around purists. He was a man who paved the way for career sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Andre Griepel.
Groenewegen lacks Cipollini’s extraversion and braggadocio. Instead, he has a quiet charm, a sturdy smile that endured when Ko hijacked our interview with photos of his own racing exploits or when we were discussing last year’s Flanders Championship where, on the final sprint, Jens Debusschere moved him into a wall, shattering his knee. It was the kind of smile that lacked condescension, almost a wily smirk suggesting that skirmishes with elbows and knees mean nothing when a pocket is opening. Cavendish has that smile. So does Peter Sagan. Such is the smile of a field sprinter.
Groenewegen’s girlfriend has made a Warholian installment of that smile, Dylan’s hands-raised-high-across finish-line, winning photos splayed across their living-room wall.
Groenewegen seemed to smile the most in the shop’s workroom, where, as a young boy, he’d bring in his Zieleman, work on his bike, and talk training with his father and grandfather or whoever happened to be visiting. The workspace was small, barely big enough for the two of us, a room made even smaller by piles of magazines documenting his son’s achievements.
“He buys everything of mine,” Groenewegen says of his father, then points out to a metal shipping container in the courtyard. “I think that’s full of my stuff as well.”
Yet, among the clutter, Groenewegen chose to show me a formatted news clipping of his father coming in second at the 1978 Dutch national track championship.
There is a beauty to watching Mark Cavendish on the Champs-Élysées on the final stage of the 2009 Tour de France, the figure of a lone rider shedding the peloton, hurling his machine at dizzying speeds over an ancient road, and raising his arms in victory while the fastest men in the world look ahead in awe. One can busy themselves calculating watts, diet, gear ratios, but that nebulous drive to needle oneself to the front, bumping arms and legs, taking unnecessary risks, is a product of the subconscious. Cavendish is the first to admit that if he had been judged solely by his numbers, he would never have gotten the opportunities that generated his Tour successes.
Sprinters like Groenewegen forego the plodding calculations of climbers like fellow compatriots Steven Kruijswijk, Bauke Mollema, and Tom Dumoulin, reserving their charisma for the blink of the finale. When Groenewegen sprints, his mother closes her eyes while Ko and Gerrie lean in, murmuring odds. To debate with Ko about whether his son is closer to Cavendish, Kittel, or Degenkolb is like sitting in a barber shop debating boxing legends. issuing different scores to power versus strength versus speed.
Just in the past month, Groenewegen sprinted effortlessly to two wins at the Tour of Norway. To watch Stage 1 of the 2016 Eneco Tour is to see him lead out the sprint, Sagan trailing by one frame, face twisted by that infamously skeptical, yet tormented expression, a look which changes to wonder as Groenewegen raises his arms in victory.
There was also Stage 1 of the Tour de Yorkshire, a showdown between Groenewegen and Caleb Ewan, a talented sprinter who is almost exactly one year his junior. In the final sprint, Groenewegen’s strength rises to the challenge of Ewan’s speed, but it is close, a preview of the field sprints in years to come.
Cipollini came from a family and neighborhood marred by war, a family that turned to racing as an escape. Like Groenewegen, Cipollini also had a sister who saw her own successes, was raised by a father who dreamt of cycling greatness, a childhood propelled by the expectations of the older generations.
Inside the Groenewegen store, there is a similar weight of expectation, six shelves of tightly packed trophies (some of them belonging to his sister) and mounted bikes that were ridden to championships in cyclocross, mountain, and road races.
Curious if Groenewegen’s achievements might be tinted by the Oedipal, I ask if he struggled with the fact that his palmares far outnumbered his paterfamilias. Groenewegen considers the question, eventually shakes his head, and says, “It makes them so happy to see me race.”
Smile blooming, he then admits how special it was that the family travelled south to watch him race in the Tour de France.
Mollema and Dumoulin were both academics. Wout Poels set school aside for his cycling career. Groenewegen is somewhere in between. He studied at the one of the highest levels in the Netherlands, but when the sun was shining, he dreamt of riding along the canals, through the boggy flatness around Schipol airport, out toward North Sea, and back again, through Haarlem, a town far older than Amsterdam and whose name was transposed to New York.
When Groenewegen turned 17, he went against his mother’s wishes, switched to a trade school and followed his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather as a frame-builder.
Playing devil’s advocate and testing that smile, I ask him what he would do if he had a serious injury and was never able to race again. It’s obvious that he had rehearsed an answer, but he stops short, telling me that he might sell coffee, then nods in the direction of the family bike shop and reiterates his father’s happiness with the simpler things.
According to his youth trainer, Bart Harmsen, Groenewegen suffered from growth issues in his early adolescence, but he made it up by eating right and training harder than his teammates. He competed in track, cyclocross, and mountain bike, but his sprinting talents brought him national fame. Still, he was too demure and humble to scrape and claw amongst the great sprinters so he was trained to fight.
“I’m relaxed now,” he says, almost with a twinge of shame over his education, “but if I’m in a sprint I can turn on the arrogance.”
In 2015, while riding for the Pro Continental team Roompot-Oranje Peloton, the wins got bigger, and the offers arrived. Groenewegen shied away from an offer from BMC Racing and instead signed a three-year deal with the Dutch team, LottoNL-Jumbo, the successor to the long-running Rabobank program. Halfway into his three-year deal, he won the 2016 Dutch national road title. There’s less money with his team now, he admitted, but less pressure as well. There is space for him to make mistakes and learn.
Still, Groenewegen had doubts. His humble upbringing was at odds with his new salary. He had his father and grandfather to talk to, but LottoNL-Jumbo was a whole new level of cycling. Groenewegen spoke with Mathieu Hermans, a Dutch sprinter from the 1980s best known for his numerous stage wins at the Vuelta a España.
“We talked for a whole night,” Groenewegen says. “He gave me a helping hand and told me to stay relaxed, believe in yourself, do a good job for your team, don’t buckle under pressure, and, in the end, stay true to who you are.”
Hermans’ plain advice might not have struck any other racer, but for Groenewegen, the idea of remaining true to himself, the youngest in successive generations of cycling dreamers, probably felt just right.
Video: Dylan Groenewegen, Stage 1 winner 2017 Tour de Yorkshire
Amsterdam has some of the most bikes per capita, in the world. In the Netherlands, children grow up on bikes, but there is a modest racing culture. Tom Dumoulin’s dominance at this year’s Giro d’Italia should be setting The Netherlands aflame, but the response has been relatively muted and cautious, even from Dumoulin himself.
To meet a middle-class Amsterdam family such as the Groenewegens, generations obsessed by cycling, reminded me of my own youth, in the years before the Lance Armstrong era, where news of Andy Hampsten’s 1988 Giro victory was crushed under off-season trades by the Denver Broncos. Groenewegen reminds me of so many of the kids I grew up racing with, middle-class youths with far too much energy, spending weekends in small towns, devouring spaghetti dinners.
Like Groenewegen, with the workroom in his father’s bike shop, I remember, with a smile, every inch of the workroom of the Denver Spoke, where, because I often had no money, I was allowed to adjust my brakes and clean my chain for free, tutored by similarly middle-class men who saw cycling not as components and composites, but as a great equalizer.
When we are done with our stroll, Groenewegen goes to lock up the shop and I notice that he has the old metal store key attached to the keyless remote of his brand new Audi. In front of me was more than a 23-year-old up-and-coming sprinter, but rather a young man who is the culmination of the hopes and dreams of the men before him, who has somehow found an opening, has sprinted beyond their expectations, and is now charging full-speed through the chaos of professional cycling, while still holding tightly to the past.