Ready for nothing: Belgian sprinter Jolien D’hoore looks past an empty spring

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With nothing but a blank, race-less spring ahead, Jolien D’hoore headed for Roubaix last Sunday. The day after her 30th birthday, the ride was her boyfriend’s idea, an effort to take the former Belgian champion’s mind away from the uncertainty every cyclist — indeed all athletes — are currently experiencing.

The couple were out the whole day, riding 150 km from their home in the Belgian city of Gent with a backpack full of provisions, stopping at a bakery for more. They stopped to eat their sandwiches at the famous velodrome, which in a few short weeks was due to host the final of Paris-Roubaix, until the COVID-19 crisis caused its cancellation.

“I sprinted like it was a real finish, it was amazing and it gave me goosebumps,” D’hoore tells me. “It would really be a race I would like to do. Hopefully next year.”

It is a race which would suit the Boels-Dolmans rider and one she would relish, but of course there is no Paris-Roubaix for women, and despite rumors, no date for one has been set.

“It’s the best race there is, it’s a Monument, it’s even bigger than Flanders I guess,” D’hoore says. “In Paris-Roubaix the strongest rider always wins — you have to be a tough guy or tough girl, and it’s all about the cobbles, that’s what makes it so hard. In Flanders you also have cobbles but they’re a lot less [difficult.] It’s different.”

D’hoore on her way to second at the 2015 Tour of Flanders.

Among the world’s best sprinters, D’hoore lives for the Spring Classics. When she talks about them her passion for the Flemish races sends a shiver down the spine. She will tell you about watching the Tour of Flanders on TV as a child, how her home region made her the rider she is, how she was “born with the cobbles,” how she relishes these races.

But she will also tell you how the threat from COVID-19 makes their cancellation entirely understandable.

“This time of the year is the most important time of the year for me, these are my kind of races and now that it’s been cancelled it’s really hard for me,” she says. “But you have to realise there are bigger things in the world — you have to see things in perspective and there’s always next year.”

The opportunities this spring could have presented will be especially missed though. Despite three wins, the 2019 season was marred by uncharacteristic crashes which brought injuries that ruined D’hoore’s spring campaign and beyond.

She broke her collarbone at Drentse Acht in early March, and though she returned quickly to start the Tour of Flanders, the injury meant she was uncompetitive, finishing only 41st. May and June brought victories at the hilly Emakumeen Bira and OVO Energy Women’s Tour, but a broken elbow at July’s BeNe Ladies Tour left D’hoore questioning her future.

“Mentally it was really hard for me — I have never crashed that much in my career, and I never broke anything until last year, so I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I was also 29, so I was doubting myself for the first time in my career. ‘What should I do now?’ It was a hard time for me.”

It was the current uncertainty and the empty space where her favourite races should be that inspired Sunday’s ride to Roubaix. No competition means no goals and perhaps even a struggle for motivation.

“I don’t have a training schedule at the moment but I just keep myself busy,” she explains. “I try to enjoy riding my bike while I still can. It’s not really about training but it’s about riding my bike and doing my hours and trying to have fun.

“You don’t know when the season starts again, you don’t have any goals, so it’s hard to mentally prepare yourself for something. But I think as a cyclist you have to prepare yourself for anything and adapt very quickly, so actually I don’t think too much at the moment, I just take it day by day and when I can I just ride my bike and have fun.”

While she accepts it is also vulnerable to cancellation, the Tokyo Olympic track races remain the only tangible target, with D’hoore preparing to compete in the Madison and possibly the Omnium in early August.

Part of her national team pursuit squad, she had hoped to compete in that discipline too, but the Belgians fell short of the qualifying mark at last month’s world championship, where they competed with a relatively inexperienced team.

Though she won a bronze medal in the Omnium in Rio, the Madison will be the main target for D’hoore who will ride with Lotte Kopecky. The pair were 2017 world champions in the discipline and finished fourth in Berlin recently. There’s extra motivation too, this being the first-ever Olympic Madison for women.

“You can’t compare that world championships in Hong Kong with the level now,” says a wary D’hoore. “We had a bit of an advantage [back then] — me and Lotte we were doing Madisons when we were little kids so we knew how to do it. But a lot of teams have invested in it, their techniques are getting better and also their tactics, and they’re learning really fast. But I’m really keen to show what we can do at the Olympics.

“I hope they will continue — the Olympics are huge and I don’t know what would happen. I try not to think about it and keep in mind the Olympics will go on no matter what. We just work with that in mind.”

About the author

Owen Rogers is a freelance journalist specialising in women’s professional road racing. He lives near Cambridge in the UK, he’s married and has two daughters, and in his spare time he rides bicycles, a motorbike, and enjoys wine. And sleep. You can follow Owen on Twitter.

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