A conversation with Wout Poels
Wout Poels sits between two Tour winners on the bus of a team that is at once celebrated and reviled. Writer Erik Raschke caught up with Poels late last year to find out what he thinks of it all.
One of the strangest things in writing about cycling, a sport starved for media attention, is how difficult it is to communicate with cyclists. I don’t mean when you get a rider sitting across from you, because, by that point, they’re usually congenial. I mean just getting through the press office, who treats even someone like me who asks softball-questions as if they are doing me a favor by granting an interview. This is perhaps why it is so equally baffling that Sky, the most dominant and powerful team in cycling, has a communications office that not only sends well-written and timely press releases, but also treats writers, at least like myself, courteously. In fact, after communicating with Sky, to set up my interview with Wout Poels (even getting an apology for taking a couple days to respond to my e-mail – something that has never happened to me before), I found myself asking, “isn’t this how it should be?”
I’ve always wanted to interview Wout Poels, ever since I wrote about how he, Tom Dumoulin, and Bauke Mollema, the best Dutch cyclists in years, had nearly opposing backgrounds. Mollema was the lower-class bookworm, attending top-level schools in the working-class, underdog northern part of the country. Dumoulin was the pretty-boy doctor whose Mick Jagger-lips were the center of every glossy magazine’s gaze. And then there was Wout Poels, from the far south of Limburg, a warm, beautiful province whose provincials are often the butt of Dutch jokes. While his brother, Norbert, who used to race with Wout, was good in school and eventually left cycling to become an accountant, Poels studied at a junior-college, self-assured that he would someday go pro. This caused an obvious friction between himself and his parents, especially when they were stuck together in the car, on long drives to races.
When Poels got his first paycheck from Vacansoleil, which was about 1600-euros a month, he thought he had proved himself to his parents, until they told him he could now afford to get his own place. “I wasn’t so excited after I did the math,” he said. “I had about a hundred euros left after rent and car payments.”
Nowadays, Poels makes more money than his brother. In fact, he’s is a millionaire. Why did one sibling succeed while the other didn’t? Norbert was a better time-trialler, according to Poels, but, in the end, he wasn’t a specialist in any one thing. You have to be a specialist or else you become a domestique, he said, “and no one starts off being a professional rider to become a domestique.” Poels added that when you’re twenty-three and you go into the pros, you really find out what you are made of, and “I don’t go into every race thinking I want to help Froome or Thomas. I have my own ambitions.” Paris-Nice and Catalonia are high on his list and in 2017 he was sixth in the Vuelta.
Poels will surely be one of the most celebrated graduates of his junior-college. A few years ago, his niece did a documentary about him where she not only interviewed his fan club, but his childhood friends, who reminisced about his juvenile delinquency and his determination to become a top athlete. They told a story of how they worked together, in a greenhouse, in 25C degree weather, and Wout supposedly wore a thick sweater and drank from a bottle of salt water as training for cycling races.
Poels’ home of Limburg is also the home of the anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, whose national-populism holds the imaginary Dutch Christmas figure, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter is Santa Claus’s black helper and seen by many as deeply racist) in high regard. This fall, anti and pro-Zwarte Piet demonstrators have roiled the Netherlands in violent protests. I asked Poels, jokingly, if he took a side on the Zwarte Piet debate and, laughing heartily, answered diplomatically, “When I was a kid, Sinterklas and Zwarte Piet were the highlights of the year.”
Chris Froome once remarked that Poels was the most entertaining guy on the bus. This used to be apparent in Poels’ Twitter account where he posted funny and quirky cycling videos long before Taylor Phinney’s sanguine daily musings. In the last few years, he said, Twitter had become negative and everything he posted was bedecked in toxicity. The next obvious question was, what was more negative, Twitter or Stage 12 of the Tour de France, on the Alpe D’ Huez, where Sky was booed heckled, and Froome was even slapped by a spectator? Poels laughed at the comparison and said without hesitation that the mountains were a better experience, especially when his team, in this case Geraint Thomas (or G as Poels repeatedly called him) was, in the end, standing upon the podium.
Much has been written about Poels’ close relationship with his father who, after a fight with lung cancer, demanded euthanasia which, while legal in the Netherlands, is not easy to obtain. “They’ll put a dog down, but they’ll make me live,” the elder Poels said when certain doctors disputed whether he was a candidate for the procedure. Wout said he still thought about his dad, but the man’s memory was not a motivation to his winning like so many narratives showed.
Since he downplayed the sentimental, I asked, again jokingly, if his father would be ashamed that his son, the hometown cycling celebrity, had never won the main hometown cycling event, The Amstel Gold Race. Wout chuckled and said he had tried to win a few times, but that while on paper it should be his race, 250 kilometers of racing crammed into a 25-square-kilometer course made it more of a “really big criterium.” He also assured me that the fears of his terrible 2012 crash, where he lost part of his kidney, had long been long dispatched from his mind.
Like many professional riders, Poels lives in Monaco. His mother was getting along fine with him being so far away, but she was getting new medication for her Multiple Sclerosis. His brothers, who were busy with their own large families, were nonetheless helping out. However, whenever Wout was back in the Netherlands, he always slept at her house.
As a kid, Poels said that he didn’t really follow professional cycling, at least not until he was older. As a kid, he rode because he liked riding. Still, “Armstrong won seven times,” he said, exhaling his admiration.
When he brought up Armstrong, I couldn’t help but think of George Hincapie, Lance’s Loyal Lieutenant and one of the most famous (and infamous) super-domestiques of that era. Hincapie, like Poels, was eternally nice, conscientious, endlessly gracious, protective, and instrumental in back-to-back, multiple Tour wins. Unfortunately, any comparison to Armstrong is tainted like a blood-bag and Wout’s apprehension to the analogy was palpable. I had to quickly clarify that I was asking about personality, not doping, but it became immediately evident that riders of my generation required trigger-warnings for younger riders like Wout.
Cycling and journalism have been a minefield for years and it’s no doubt that Froome’sscandal produced a siege mentality in Sky. In fact, the Sky press officer even followed up after the interview, saying Wout was worried the comparison with Hincapie would be misconstrued. Again, the interaction was polite and respectful and I assured him that I was a writer, not a journalist, and far too clumsy to execute a David Walsh-like investigation. Of course, my private theory had always been that for a team operating at the level of Sky, involving their highest paid super-domestiques in a hypothetical doping operation would be at best counterproductive and at worst masochistic. However, the entire exchange between me, Poels, and the press officer made me wonder what it must be like to operate a thirty-five million dollar a year team under constant fear of insinuations or to watch your top talent have their athletic stamina sapped by existential anxiety over semantics.
During the interview, I explained to Poels that Hincapie protected Armstrong until he couldn’t protect him anymore, not just on the bike, but off as well, and, in my opinion, that was the kind of loyalty that extended beyond the professional level. Wout seemed equally loyal, standing up for Team Sky through some of its darkest days. And especially this last Tour de France. He is friends with both Thomas and Froome and was often toggling between the two in the mountains, his loyalty divided.
“If you have a good relationship with someone like Chris or G,” he explained (again diplomatically) his role in Thomas/Froome/Sky schism, “if you know someone better, then you want to give a little bit more. If there’s a guy you don’t know really well or he’s not really friendly to you, I can still do the job, but I don’t think you go as deep as you normally would.”
Several years ago, when Poels became the first Dutch cyclist to sign with Sky, he flew down to South Africa and trained with Froome. It was the first time they met and they quickly became friends. Poels subsequently helped Froome though the following Tours and he was at his side during this year’s Giro. But Poels’ enthusiasm for their friendship was more muted than I expected, which could be interpreted in a number of ways: Poels and Froome had grown weary like The Eagles after touring for many years together, or Wout was closer to Thomas, who, until lately had been a fellow domestique, or maybe his need for winning eclipsed his friendship and he saw Froome’s star dimming, or maybe he was simply distracted by a new pair of Apple-ear-pods that he fussed with throughout the interview.
Still, Froome had a tumultuous Tour de France. With the police pulling him over, angry spectators spitting on him, and the questions about whether he should even be cycling at all, July of 2018 seemed like an emotional roller-coaster for the Kenyan.
“How did you help out in those situations?” I asked Poels. “Do you stay up late with Chris, drink a bottle of wine…”
“You mean a protein shake?” Poels laughed, finally warming back up again. “I tell him (Froome) I’m swapping him for G. I told him G’s my new friend. No. I’m joking. You see each other on the bike and, of course, the bus transfers are quite long. You just try and give him confidence and show him that people still believe in him. He sits right behind me on the bus, so I turn around and try and motivate him, but yeah, you know, he’s Chris Froome. He’s won six Grand Tours. He knows how to motivate himself better than I do.”
“Would you and Chris be friends if you weren’t cycling together?” I asked.
“I know if we weren’t cycling together, I wouldn’t be in Monaco and I wouldn’t be riding like I do. The thing with bike riders though is that we all have one thing in common. We all like to ride our bikes. So, if we meet each other it’s quite easy to have a chat because you can talk about races and training and bikes. So straight away you have something that connects you. But if we didn’t have cycling, yeah, maybe he would be just like someone you meet on the street. I don’t know.”
This brought me back to my original question. Armstrong’s rough edges were often smoothed over by Hincapie. Froome is often reserved, distant, curt while Poels is mostly smiles, the most entertaining guy on the bus. Did Poels’ and Hincapie’s talents as a super-domestique shine in more ways than just setting the pace at the front of the peloton? Were they also the charismatic ying to the big star’s yang?
“Ha, right, well I try my best to be the funniest,” Poels said. “The difference is that if Chris does or says something bad, the whole world hears about it and he has to deal with it, but if I do something stupid it’s online for like a day and then everyone forgets.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “So how do remain the most entertaining guy on the bus when Froome is losing his crown to his teammate?”
“This year, the only difference is that G won and Froome didn’t,” he said. “But the dynamics on the bus were the same. There were the conversations and fights. You go with one goal to a race and it either works out or it doesn’t. I mean, what if you do everything right? Your weight is good, your fitness is good, your diet is good and then there are still people faster than you. What are you going to do about it? You can be a little depressed. But sometimes you have to move on. Otherwise, you make it too hard on for yourself.”
Poels seemed to have said enough about Froome, so I asked the one question I’d been wanting to ask all along, “What is Sky?”
“A cycling team,” Poels said dryly. His following words came out stilted at first, but then he quickly shifted into his normal flow. “I see it as one of the most professional cycling teams in the world, where they try and make everything the best for the riders. They create an environment where you only have to train and think about riding your bike. The rest they take care of. I only have to think about how I train, how I race, and I how I deliver a job.”
“Yes, but there’s been nothing like Sky in the history of cycling,” I said. “One example is that at the races you have showers and clean towels and…”
“It’s funny,” he said. “I’m always interested in what happens in the pit of F1-racing. After the races, people want to come see the Sky bus because they think it’s so special. But it’s actually just a bus with a few seats, a kitchen, a shower, and that’s it. But for me, our bus is just a place where you change your kit, you have a team meeting, collect your food, and then go on your bike for five hours.”
“Yes, but your team cars are Jaguars,” I said.
“Now we have Fords,” he said, chuckling. “But good point. You know, I was on Quick-Step and Vacansoleil. At Vacansoleil, they do their best with what budget they have. Quick-Step is also one of the best teams. But with Sky, I guess, all the details are arranged. For example, here in Monaco, if I have to go to the airport, the team arranges my taxi to pick me up and bring me home again. Things like that make it really good. Like today, we did a four-hour training and the whole day we had a car behind us with food and rain-jackets. Sky makes the small details work well.”
“Just like setting up this interview with you,” I said. “It was all very smooth.”
I then made a reference that I was sure Poels wasn’t going to entirely get, but it’s nonetheless been stuck in my mind for years. From here on our conversation became more straightforward.
Erik Raschke: When I think of Sky, I think of the New York Yankees at the turn of the millennium. They had the biggest budget. The best players. They were unstoppable. They’ve won the World Series 27 times, but they still wouldn’t give anyone else a chance. And while it’s nice if you like the Yankees, it’s not so nice if like the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees were a winning machine and that kind of organization takes the fun out of baseball. I feel it’s the same with Sky. It’s unstoppable and therefore it takes something out of cycling. So you, as a rider for the team, might have the luxury of having a car behind you, food, staff, etc, and Sky might be really good for it’s own cyclists, but, sometimes it feels as if it’s not necessarily good for the sport.
Wout Poels: I get it. Cycling becomes boring if Sky is in the Tour right? Because they’ll win. If you win the first time, it’s fun, second time, it’s still nice, and then the third time people get a little bit bored of it. But on the other hand, it’s really hard work, and hard work doesn’t come by itself. If the other teams want to be better, it doesn’t matter about their budget. But Sky is also what makes the rest of cycling more professional. Other teams are developing and maybe it will take them a while to develop, but it will come. I mean look at Chris. He didn’t win the Tour this year.
ER: Yes, but Thomas did.
WP: (laughs) Yeah. O.K. That’s true. I think what I mean is, it might look easy on TV, but we all have to work so hard to reach that level. And maybe it’s a little bit boring to see. What can we do about it? We can’t break and let other people win. You don’t think about these things when you go to a race. You just go to a race to win. I understand people want to see competition, but that’s with all the sports.
ER: I first moved to the Netherlands during the first Gulf War when anti-American sentiment in Europe was at it’s highest. People were always coming up to me and saying, “I hate America” and they said it with such frustration, as if simply saying it to me relieved them of some psychic burden. My hypothesis is that people don’t like Chris Froome, not necessarily because of his personality or any particular thing he’s done, but because of riders like you, Wout Poels, who are carrying him up the mountain. The domestiques around Froome are unstoppable and when something is unstoppable, such as the American military or the Yankees for example, people begin to feel helpless in stopping it and when they feel helpless they get angry.
WP: Yeah. Maybe that’s more the problem. The other problem is I don’t really look at it through the glasses of a fan right now. I look at it through the glasses of Wout, the bike rider. I just want to win the race for the team. And if it works, you’re super-happy. It’s a really big thing to do. It doesn’t come by itself. But, yeah, in time, I think there will always come new riders. Chris will not always win the Tour. So maybe have a bit of patience.
ER: You can’t ask cycling fans to have patience. Besides, you also have so many good riders right now… young, up-and-coming riders.
WP: (Laughing) Well then maybe you need to change the team that you’re cheering for…
ER: When I think of Sir Dave Brailsford, I think of George Steinbrenner who owned the Yankees. A lot of people hated him. And they were also fascinated by him. He just said what was on his mind and that often worked against him, but in the end it didn’t matter. Steinbrenner owned the best team in baseball, year after year after year, and he made no apologies for it. His quote was, ‘Don’t talk to me about aesthetics or tradition. Talk to me about what sells and what’s good right now. What the American people like to think is that the underdog still has a chance.’ That really infuriated people because they were like, ‘no, we really want an underdog to win. And we want real competition.’
WP: It’s always a little bit like that in any sport. If you look at the F1 with Hamilton. He keeps winning all the time and people say, ‘oh, it’s boring.’ People always want the underdog to win. It’s quite funny if you think about it. If someone wins, people always sort of wanted number two to win.
ER: Steinbrenner also said that second place is the first place loser.
WP: Well, if you’re winning everything and you say something like that then you’re just being arrogant.
ER: You can’t tell me that when you’re sitting around with your friends, you guys don’t talk about Sky and its effects on cycling.
WP: (Laughing) My friends support me and encourage me to win so…
ER: O.K. Well you said you don’t read many English-cycling magazines, how about Dutch magazines. They regularly call Sky domestiques, Skybots and the team The Evil Empire.
WP: Yeah, but that’s the Netherlands. You have Dumoulin coming in second, twice now, behind Sky. So, yeah, I understand that the Dutch media is really going on about that.
ER: Speaking as a fan, last year, I think it was, Mollema was on a breakaway in the mountains and his tongue is sticking out and the two domestiques helping him had long dropped off. And then there comes there comes you, Wout Poels, leading the Sky train. You, and I think four other guys, just blew right by him. Mollema, from Groningen, is, in my mind, the quintessential underdog. And then there’s you, leading Sky, with the highest budget of any team, shiny new bikes and perfect formation, just charging along. Somehow, as a fan, it doesn’t feel right.
WP: Yeah, O.K. But you know we can’t break. That’s a no go. I guess if I were on another team, I would try and see how we race and then do something to break us, you know, so we can’t race how we race. Play with our tactics. That kind of thing. Of course, that’s the most difficult part to do. (Starts laughing again) Yeah, cause, I guess we have a lot of good riders. I mean, like with us, if you have two of the best riders in the peloton and someone attacks and he’s crazy strong… In the end, Chris will survive because he’s the best. He has the best legs.
ER: Right, but if Froome didn’t have you and this incredible cadre of super-domestiques helping him, my question is, would he survive as often as he does?
WP: The thing is, the mountains are fair. You know, if I’m pulling and the other GC riders are on my wheel. They still have to deliver the same power as Chris. If I try and kill them and Chris is still good, then he can attack. The other ones are tired. Even if I wasn’t there, surely someone else would be pulling. They would be pulling because they had a team-mate they wanted to win. Chris would be on their wheel. And he would probably win. (Laughs) I think.
ER: But generally, you guys almost always control the peloton. Is that good for cycling?
WP: Yeah. That’s true. But people are still standing next to the road and watching TV so they’re still enjoying it, no?
ER: I don’t know. Television viewership for this year’s Tour dropped considerably.
WP: Yeah, but it was a really good summer. I also wouldn’t watch television. (Laughing) I don’t have air-conditioning my house. No. I mean, I don’t know. How to make it more exciting? You’re always going to have this a little bit. It’s kind of like soccer in the Netherlands. You have AJAX (Amsterdam) and PSV (Eindhoven). Sometimes, PSV, which is outstanding, will win, but normally AJAX will win. You have the same with the soccer in the UK. You have three top clubs who are going to win because they have the most money. Still, the stadiums are full with people and the merchandise is going crazy and there’s still so much money involved. Someone still has to be the best. Someone still has to win the race.
ER: But if Mollema is riding 20K by himself and Froome is on your wheel and you pull him past Mollema…
WP: Yeah but then you have the benefit that I’m closing the gap. But if I wasn’t there and Mollema would attack 20K before the climb and Chris would be alone, then Chris would jump on his wheel and then maybe he wouldn’t ride away. Or you’d have the game where other people attack, like Nibali goes, then someone else. That’s when it becomes a whole different game of course….
ER: How about Dutch cycling. It’s the best its ever been.
WP: Yeah. Dumoulin, Mollema, Groenewegen, Kruijswijk…
ER: Where do you fit in it and how do you think you’ll be remembered?
WP: Yeah, I’m still winning my own races, but for the larger public, because they usually follow the bigger races, I’m less visible. If I were to die right now, they’d probably remember me as a domestique for Chris. But I’d hope they’d also remember me for my own results. Right now I’m thinking about next season. I’m training and making plans and making goals and whether I need some new inner-soles for my shoes.
ER: It sounds like you’re pretty happy. I mean not just all smiles, but really content.
WP: I’m not smiling like on Instagram where someone’s on some beautiful holiday and then you speak with them and they’re like, ‘it was terrible.” No, I’m always happy. I mean of course, everybody has their ups and downs. You know if I don’t have a good day on the bike or I think about my father, then I feel a little bit less happy. Everybody has that. I think it’s normal.
ER: Do the stresses of professional cycling take a toll on your character?
WP: There are downsides, of course. Like you don’t have much of a social life. And, I moved to Monaco for myself and my training and all so you don’t see your family and friends a lot. For example, you’re training hard for the Tour and then you see on Instagram that your friends in the Netherlands are having a great beach barbecue or they’re at a festival and you’re like, ‘ah, that would be great to do right now.’ But you can’t because you’re on Tenerife, at 2000-meters, with nothing to do. But, on the other hand, I quite enjoy what I do now.
ER: A lot of the guys have family? Don’t you get lonely?
WP: I have a girlfriend, but she doesn’t live with me. I mean, today I did a light training and then I come home, make lunch, and sit on the sofa. I like that time. If you have children, you can’t just send them away for a few hours while you rest. It doesn’t work like that. At least that’s what I’ve heard from some teammates. You know, I’m really happy I made a move to Monaco. A lot of people go to work and come home at seven at night, work five days a week, and live for the weekend. I mean, yeah, does that make you happy?
ER: So when you have your live Twitter feed in the Pyrenees or Alps when spectators are cursing and screaming at you, you never say to yourself, ‘this really isn’t worth it.’
WP: Well, those times in the mountains kind of creates a special bond with your teammates. And then when you all survive and win and you’re standing on the podium, it’s pretty special.