Leaping to the pro ranks: An 18-year old’s run at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in one word? “Chaotic,” said Maike van der Duin.

Unlike the men’s peloton, the women’s peloton doesn’t have a U23-category to ease into the pro ranks. Junior women go straight from junior races, junior gears and junior distances to lining up next to Annemiek van Vleuten, Amanda Spratt and Kasia Niewiadoma. Some make the transition look easy — think Lorena Wiebes, Letizia Paternoster or Franziska Koch — but many struggle with this huge step up, and with the chaos.

Van der Duin, an 18-year old Dutch rider from the Biehler Krush Pro Cycling Team, was one of the first-year elite riders at the start of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday. It was her biggest rate to date, by a fair margin. Her first Classic; her first time on these cobbles and hills.

“I am not afraid at all,” she said. “But very curious to find out how hard they race, how I handle the distance, the weather and of course how I will be doing. I never did any junior races in this region so literally everything will be new, all the hills and all the cobbles. I prepared well and we did a small recon too. We have some experienced riders like Merel Hofman who I can ask all the questions. I also asked Lonneke Uneken (of Boels-Dolmans), who is from my region, how she experienced her first Classic.”

Van der Duin is one of the most promising junior-women of a new generation from a country where champions seem to grow on trees. She is a versatile rider with medals on the European junior track championships and stage wins in UCI Junior Women Nations Cup races like Omloop van Borsele and the Healthy Ageing Tour. She has a strong sprint and a real winner’s mentality. The Omloop is her very first race in a new team and a new environment.

“And what a race to start,” she said at the start in Ghent, where the rain held off just long enough for the riders to take off for their 126-kilometre long opening classic. Despite the fact the race is classified UCI 1.1, a third division, the world’s best riders and teams line up including all eight WorldTour teams.

Maaike van der Duin pictured during Dutch National Championships Track day 3 in Almaar, the Netherlands – Photo: Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos © 2019

“Ideally you should have a U23 category,” she continued. “As an 18-year old girl, you are suddenly piloted into the life of a fulltime pro. It’s not only a step up physically. Mentally I am prepared that I will be just one of the many riders here. I have a strong winner’s mentality but I realize the next years will be about something else. I have long-term goals where I will have disappointments but also moments where things will be easier but I need to primarily focus on development first. I start this race without big expectations. Finishing the race would be an achievement in itself.”

It’s important, particularly for a rider in her first classic, to remember that everyone started here.

Floortje Mackaij of Team Sunweb, who finished third in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, remembers her first pro race which coincidentally also was the Omloop back in 2014. She finished that race and came in 32nd.

“I remember the step up was huge. In the junior peloton, you just could do everything. The elite peloton was so much bigger, the positioning, the pushing and shoving, and the speed were so different. You really have to take the time and also be given the time by your team to ease into it. It takes time and patience for all of us.”

Saturday’s weather made a hard race even harder. Rain and wind whipped the Omloop peloton, and the cobble and climb sectors broke it to pieces. Maike was one of those ripped out of the peloton; she didn’t finish her first pro race, as was the fate of 67 other riders, nearly half the field. After a cold, wet and much shorter day than anticipated, she reflected on the experience.

“I didn’t have any nerves at the start and a free role to find out where my limits were. The first hour, until we got to the first climb, were fine. I was positioning well, found myself among the first riders of the peloton despite the fact that things were getting more and more chaotic. I was with the first 20 on the Leberg and kept that position. Then the first cobbles came at Haaghoek and the peloton broke into pieces. I ended up in the first group. We arrived at the Wolvenberg and then I found out I had a mechanical. My front derailer was broken and I was stuck in the big ring. Powering on I managed to follow the peloton on the Wolvenberg and arrived at the foot of the Molenberg but that was just too much on the big ring.

It’s a huge disappointment that I couldn’t finish my first race due to circumstances I couldn’t control. I didn’t have any huge expectations today but did set small targets for myself: getting from one point to another, from climb to climb and from cobble to cobble. When I noticed I was doing better than I had expected the targets got bigger in my head. My mindset slowly changed and I felt I could finish this race. Having to quit the race due to a mechanical was a huge disappointment.”

Maike started the race with questions about speed, about positioning and how she would stand her ground in this elite peloton.

“Some questions were answered. The most important one being that I have my place in this peloton. The small targets I have for myself are achievable. The difference is there but I wasn’t too disappointed. Straight from the start of the season this is already one of the biggest races due to the course, the quality of the field and the weather. I now know my legs are there. My morale is here. It is a disappointment that I couldn’t do what I set out to do. The group I was in before the mechanical finished the race. The good thing to take away from today is that I learned that I can handle the change from junior to elite and that I have a place among these riders.”

Van der Duin continues her season on Sunday in Spar Omloop van het Hageland, then goes on to the Drentse Acht van Westerveld and then will experience some emotional moments in her home town race: the UCI Worldtour Bevrijdingsronde van Drenthe. She hopes to peak for the first time in the Healthy Ageing Tour, also in the Netherlands, from April 8th.

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