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Tom Boonen. Philippe Gilbert. Greg Van Avermaet. These are the names that have dominated headlines in Belgium in recent years. And now, who comes next?
Looking at career progression, it may well be Tim Wellens.
The Belgian has been banging on the door for a long time. He’s already a proven winner: take races such as the Eneco Tour, the Tour of Poland and the new Tour of Guangxi as examples. But this season has shown indications that he is moving to a new level.
“He is closer to the big winners now,” says Hugo Coorevits, Het Nieuwsblad journalist and one of the most experienced writers in the press room. “You see his attitude in races before, last year and the years before that – he attacked on anticipating moments. Now, he goes on the decisive movements.”
What Coorevits says is true. Wellens previously had a reputation as a rider who would shake up races by going from a long way out, or by surging before the really big guns would do so. But this season, he’s there alongside the riders who are proven Classic winners, shoulder to shoulder, battling in the finale.
It seems that he has more confidence in himself. The element of surprise is less necessary than before: now, he’s very, very close to the level of the household names and squares up to them on their own terms.
“Tim knows himself very well,” Coorevits says. “When he does this, riding this way, mentally he knows that physically he is able to do it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t do it. He is really a guy who knows his own body.
“He is also always honest when he loses – two years ago he lost on the queen stage of Paris-Nice. That evening he was so disillusioned. He said to me, ‘tomorrow, I attack.’ He did, and he won. He is really a fighter.”
The year has been high impressive from the start. Consider his results. Victory in the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, Victory on stage four and in the general classification at the Vuelta a Andalucía. Second on a stage and fifth overall in Paris-Nice. And victory a week and a half ago in the Brabantse Pijl, in an audacious solo move.
Since then he had been right there in the finale of two more key events. In last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race he was one of the strongest, but was a little outmanoeuvred by the way things played out tactically. He finished sixth, immediately behind Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and immediately ahead of Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors). That’s pretty good company.
Then on Wednesday, he rode well again in Flèche Wallonne, netting seventh on the Mur de Huy. The steep, short climb is one which favours lighter riders, yet he was again very close.
Does he feel that he is in his best-ever condition for this time of the season?
“I think so, to be honest,” he told CyclingTips. “After Paris-Nice I got a little bit ill. Then I had to directly focus for this period.
“I had really good training. I didn’t have any competition. It was a choice to make, I wanted a different approach for the races to come. I think it was a good tactic.”
Winning Brabantse Pijl set Wellens up perfectly for Amstel, Flèche and now, on Sunday, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “My motivation is very high,” he says of the Ardennes Classics period. “The confidence is also very good. Also, in terms of the whole team, everybody is riding good.
“When you win, it is always good for the races to come.”
So, does Coorevits believe that he could win La Doyenne, the oldest of the Classics, on Sunday?
“He can win Liège, yes – when everything goes well for him, he can win,” he says, speaking shortly after Wednesday’s finish of La Flèche Wallonne. “He is one of the top seven, eight riders who can win Liège.
“And next year he will be better again, because he is still growing. It is coming…”
‘If he has a goal, he succeeds…or he will be very close’
Wellen’s move towards the end of Brabantse Pijl perfectly illustrates several aspects of his racing character. Inside the final 12 kilometres his Lotto-Soudal teammate Jelle Vanendert sparked off the winning break. Wellens recognised the opportunity, sped across to the move, and then launched a solo attack with just under eight kilometres to go. Turning the pedals rapidly and visibly putting out a lot of power, he soloed in nine seconds clear of his nearest rival.
The move displayed his ability to sniff out the right break, his instinct to know when to go it alone, and the strength to hold on to the line.
For Lotto-Soudal general manager Marc Sergeant, Wellens is one of the most important riders for the future. He’s long recognised his qualities and now sees him thrive.
“We had him already for three years in the under 23 squad,” he told CyclingTips. “There we already saw he was special. The muscles weren’t there, but he was still doing good tests, watt per kilo…all the things. And from there you saw him get better year by year.
“I think he won more than 11 WorldTour races already. He is quite a strong rider. And you can rely on him. If he says he is going to be there, he is going to be there.”
Guy Van Den Langenbergh is another of Belgium’s most experienced cycling journalists, working for Gazet van Antwerpen/Het Nieuwsblad.
He has a very similar assessment to Sergeant.
“If he has a goal, Tim succeeds, or he will be very close. He doesn’t win every race he wants to win, but he will be there [in contention], that’s for sure.”
Talk to Wellens before a race or after the finish and he seems calm, logical. Unlike some, say Mark Cavendish or Bradley Wiggins, his emotions don’t bubble on the surface. He seems at a pretty consistent level whether he wins or loses.
Van Den Langenbergh knows him a long time and sees him as someone who works hard. “He is very serious,” he says. “Very serious, very focussed. He is not the guy fooling around with the mechanics or doing crazy things with other riders. He is the prototype of a very concentrated, very focussed rider. Knowing very well what his goals are, knowing his qualities as well.
“I don’t say he is a boring guy, absolutely not, but he knows very well what he is working towards.”
Van Den Langenbergh draws parallels with another highly talented young rider on the Lotto-Soudal team, Tiesj Benoot. The latter is also a product of the under 23 development squad, and also picked up a big single day win this year when he took Strade Bianche.
Like Wellens, he too can ride strongly in the week-long stage races.
According to Van Den Langenbergh, both riders are similarly focussed. Both also went to university. “They are young, modern guys who do their studies. They are not the classic Flandriens who started cycling and who have nothing in their life but cycling,” he says. “No, these are two very intelligent, clever boys.”
Wellens is 26 years of age, Benoot is 24. Speaking to each, what is obvious is that they are confident, but also calm. They appear serious beyond their years and, yes, focussed.
They have their sights set on big success in the sport, and are working hard to make that happen.
Benoot has been Wellens’ teammate for several years, and also knows him from racing in Belgium prior to that. “As riders, I think he is a bit better at riding alone,” Benoot says. “He doesn’t go well in the heat…I perform better in the heat. He likes hard parcours – I also like hard parcours too, but cobbles also.
“In some ways we are the same, in some ways we are different.”
Digging deeper into his impression of his teammate, he says that Wellens has “really got a clear vision.
“He really goes for his goal. Everything has to be pushed aside just to get his goal, [in terms of focus]. This makes him also a great sportsman. I think he doesn’t have a lot of social contacts or things like this. He just focuses on cycling, and nothing else.”
Sergeant gives a specific an example of Wellens’ singlemindedness. The rider had been hoping to continue his momentum after Paris-Nice, but came down sick. He was forced to miss the Volta a Catalunya as a result.
He and the team spoke about how to rejig things, and decided that he should skip the Itzulia Basque Country race. Wellens would train instead of race, working with his coach towards the Ardennes Classics.
Some riders might have struggled to replicate the intensity of training, but not Wellens. “He came back very strongly…we saw that in Brabantse Pijl,” says Sergeant.
And so too in the races since then.
Strong views on Belgian nationalism and TUE usage
Although Benoot suggests that Wellens focusses only on cycling, both Van Den Langenbergh and Lotto-Soudal press officer Arne Houtekier remark that he has other aspects to his character. The latter notes that his mother is French speaking, a Walloon, while his father is from the Dutch part of the country.
Being Belgian is something he is very proud of. Indeed, as Van Den Langenbergh notes, having parents from both sides of what he terms the ‘language border’ makes him popular across the country.
But more than that, his shared background means that he is passionate about Belgian nationalism. There are parties within the country which are advocating for it to split in two, to break up in to a French-speaking country and one which speaks Flemish; Wellens is not one of these.
“Tim is really outspoken against those kind of stories,” says Van Den Langenbergh. “He loves Belgium and he wants Belgium to remain. And he is not too afraid to express himself about that. I mean, he is not going to stand on the barricades, but if you ask him, he will always tell you that he is a Belgian.”
This sort of strength of opinion is not always seen with people in their 20s, let alone professional athletes who often don’t look beyond their sport, but Wellens has his own mind. If he believes in something, he is not afraid to speak out about it.
A clear example of this was seen in last year’s Tour de France. He became ill on the 14th stage and was told by his team doctors that he could apply for permission under the TUE system to use medication. He refused to do so, choosing instead to leave the race.
Unlike other riders who have availed of the TUE system – and, indeed, profited from it, in some cases – Wellens is adamant that this is a line he will not cross.
“He is clear on that,” says Sergeant. “When they [the doctors] said ‘we can give you something, we can ask the UCI for a TUE,’ he said, ‘no, I don’t like that.
“But,” he continues, “on the other hand, he doesn’t push somebody into a corner, ‘you do this…’ He doesn’t argue with the rest. He just talks for himself.”
Van Den Langenbergh explains the latter point a little more clearly. “You have a lot of riders who will say, ‘I have nothing to say on that [doping, and TUEs],’ or ‘I don’t make any comment on those kind of topics.’ Tim will never avoid talking about doping or, let’s say, the bad parts of cycling.
“He doesn’t want to be seen a crusader who stands on the barricades in the fight against doping. But if you ask him about doping, he will tell you his opinion.”
Earlier this year Wellens expressed unease about Chris Froome competing in the Ruta del Sol, saying that he would never have started a race until a final verdict was reached.
However, that aside, Van Den Langenbergh said that it is important to Wellens that he speaks for himself rather than appears to be passing judgements on others. “He’s got a very strong mentality. Some people accept this [speaking about such topics] as a positive thing. Other people say, ‘yeah, but his honesty is almost pointing out some other guys.’ But he doesn’t do that. He just talks about himself.”
Having the mental strength to refuse a TUE, even if it means leaving the Tour, and also to make clear his thoughts on tricky topics such as national politics shows that Wellens is someone with clear opinions.
Another way to put it is that he calls a spade a spade. If he believes in something, he will say it, stick by it.
“He has character, for sure,” says Sergeant. “He always says straight what he thinks.
“Sometimes, in the beginning, it was like, ‘what do you want to achieve by this?’ He would reply, ‘I just said what I want to say.’ He is straightforward. I can only appreciate those things. If you take a guy who says things behind someone’s back, it is different, but he is straightforward.”
A champion for April, not July
So, what is the future for Wellens? He will start Liège gunning to win his first Monument Classic, taking on the likes of Valverde, Alaphilippe and, yes, well-known Belgian champions such as Philippe Gilbert and Greg van Avermaet. The two he could yet replace.
But, whether Monument success comes this year or a little later on, his trajectory indicates he could soon become one of the sport’s top names.
“I am quite confident that he will win one of the big Ardennes races. If not this year, then another year,” says Sergeant. “And then, let’s not say three week Tours, but the GC of a one-week WorldTour race. He can do that also.
“He’s already done that three times [at the Tour of Poland and Eneco Tour], but let’s look a level higher and say a race like Paris-Nice. He is able to win that too, and that’s a very important event, of course.”
In giving a self-assessment, Wellens sees things along similar lines to Sergeant. “In the future, I hope to win one of these Ardennes Classics,” he says. “It is already a few years that I come to these races with big ambitions and expectations. Until now I don’t really have a result [victory], so I hope a result will come.”
But if his rate of progression does continue as it has been doing, if he wins a Paris-Nice or a race like Liège, questions will inevitably follow as to the Grand Tours. And in being 26, his youth too gives him time to improve.
Yet there seems to be a consensus between Wellens, Sergeant, and the journalists Coorevits and Van Den Langenbergh as to his prospects. All agree that the GC in three week races may not be where his talents lie.
Coping with very high altitude is one hurdle that is cited; a second is the very high temperatures. And while Sergeant says that the team hopes to find ways to help Wellens deal better with the heat in the Tour, he said he will miss it the race year and instead focus his efforts on the Giro. Presumably, stage wins will be the target there.
Some riders fixate on trying to chase Grand Tour success, even when there are indications that it might not fit with their physiology. Wellens isn’t one of these. He seems perfectly happy to target shorter events. He’s got his desired career path mapped out, and is working hard to be as good as he can be within those parameters.
“I really like the week-long Tours like Paris-Nice, the Eneco Tour, the Tour of Poland, the Tour of China,” he says. “And it is very possible to combine them with one day races. So that is not a problem at all. It is more difficult to combine three week races with one day races, because with the three week races the preparation is totally different.
“If you want to win a Grand Tour, you have to go to altitude. And then in the race, you need to be there every day. To never have a crash or bad luck, or a bad day. You have to be very, very consistent.
“I prefer the focus of the shorter races. For me, one day races or one week races…those are perfect.”