Forever on the front: Meet Tim Declercq, one of the world’s best domestiques
You have seen his face, his grimace, his impressive presence at the front of many of the Spring Classics and Grand Tours. He is the rider who does his work in view of the world but always finishes his races in the peloton, or behind. He doesn’t get champagne showers on the podium or winner’s interviews on international TV. But without Tim Declercq, many wins for the likes of Sam Bennett or Julian Alaphilippe would not have happened.
“That face I make is my focus face,” Declercq says with an audible smile when I ask him about his world-famous grimace. “I make the same face when I play Age of Empires at home. It’s how I look when concentrated.”
Tim Declercq was a promising junior and U23 rider. He even became Belgian champion in the U23 category 10 years ago. In the same peloton that day in Geel we find names like Edward Theuns, Tim Wellens, Tim Merlier and Yves Lampaert. That championship earned Declercq a contract with Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise where he stayed until 2017 – the year he joined Patrick Lefevere’s QuickStep team.
“I won races in the younger categories but when I joined the professional ranks, I noticed [I’m missing] the explosive style of racing needed,” he says. “In the finals of the races, especially the long and demanding ones, I did well but in the short ones I missed that explosive kick. Testing confirmed this and that’s how I started focusing on being a support rider.
“My dream was to one day be a domestique in a WorldTour team. Yves [Lampaert] told me back in 2016 that QuickStep might be interested. I was bold enough to send Patrick an email and got an invitation to test.”
From that moment Declercq became one of the most-filmed riders in cycling with endless hours spent riding at the front of the peloton. His nickname soon became ‘El Tractor’ (‘The Tractor’). It seems like a relaxed job without too much pressure but the real hard work is usually done before we turn on the TV. By way of context, Declercq explains one of the most important days of the season for Deceuninck-QuickStep: the Tour of Flanders.
“Most riders start a race like Flanders rather relaxed,” he says. “They dress up with extra layers but not me because my job starts straight from the start of the race. I need to be ready right away because it’s full gas from kilometre zero.
“It’s my job to check which riders try to get in a breakaway. I know most of the riders of the peloton and can make the judgment whether someone is a threat or not by myself. There are usually many attacks happening and no time to confer with the sports director in the team car.”
Apart from the team meeting the night before, the decision on who to let go clear on the day falls on Declercq. It’s that kind of experience that can’t be measured in results on ProCyclingStats or in UCI points.
“So far I have been spot-on in my judgments, knock on wood,” he laughs. “Flanders is a tough race so it’s important to keep the breakaway within reigns. It’s important to see who is in it but also which teams. Are there teams left to help with the chase or do they have someone at the front and therefore won’t help? Doing it all alone like sometimes happens in the Tour de France is quite painful.”
“It’s also my job to keep the team leaders at the front and out of the wind,” he says. “It’s always busy at the front in Flanders. Position is key. Every corner and every hill is like a bunch sprint again. Luckily, I have some respect in the peloton and manage to position the team leaders well. I usually lose many positions before the climbs and then have to catch back on. And repeat. That’s why I usually don’t last that long in Flanders.”
“Tim is a hugely important rider for the team,” says his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Yves Lampaert. “He controls the race from the start and keeps on going deep into the finals, or even an entire Grand Tour long. Every day again! This way he saves the team so much energy. It’s something that many people underestimate. Many think they can do what Tim does. Plus Tim is a great presence at the dinner table. That’s important too!”
“It feels good to be appreciated,” Declercq says. “Some people would ask me: ‘where are you in the race?’ but being seen isn’t my objective. Team leaders show their gratitude. Sometimes we get gifts [Lampaert gave him a lawnmower when he became national champion in 2018 – ed.] but it doesn’t have to be a gift. A thank you, a few words are enough, both after wins and after losses too.”
Lampaert and Declercq both hail from the province of West Flanders. Together with East Flanders it’s the heartland of Belgian cycling. The normal order of a pro cyclist’s life is that an uncle, father, brother, grandfather or cousin rides and then the young generation joins, but Tim and his brother Benjamin – a rider with Arkea-Samsic – are the first pro cyclists in the family.
“No one in the family races but my dad was a big fan of Johan Museeuw,” he says. “I played football but it was soon clear that I wasn’t a Cristiano Ronaldo. I tried a race bike and that went really well. My brother did too and now we are the only ones in the family racing and even at pro level too.”
Tim Declercq is not a winner but he is instrumental in winning. In the Tour de France of 2020 he was part of wins by Julian Alaphilippe and the stage wins and green jersey of Sam Bennett. The plan is to return to the Tour de France again this year.
“Those wins make me happy for my teammates,” Declercq says. “Especially with Sam you could see that it set him free. My vision is that I have to do what I am good at. Of course, it would be great to win a race one day but all the pieces of the puzzle must be right. Last year this almost happened in Bruges-De Panne [Declercq was second behind Lampaert – ed]. My career doesn’t need a win to be successful though. I am content as it is. I am grateful to be a helper and think I have grown in this role over the years.”
Declercq also knows that within Deceuninck-QuickStep there won’t be an opportunity to pursue his own success. But he is happy in the team. “Never say never [about joining another team] but if Patrick and I reach an agreement I don’t see a reason to leave,” he says. “It’s not that I feel like I will be winning races when I ride for another team.”
Declercq has already been through a lot within the Belgian team with the crashes of Remco Evenepoel in Il Lombardia and the life-threatening crash of Fabio Jakobsen in the Tour of Poland a few weeks before. He wasn’t part of the team those days but the events affected all the team’s riders and staff.
“Fabio’s crash had a huge impact on all of us and created a strong bond within the team,” Declercq explains. “We really went through it as a team. Every time I see him, I am happy he is still with us. The team has a great psychologist who is also at the races. It’s not mandatory but he is there when you need him.”
In July 2020 Declercq and his wife Tracey welcomed their first child into the world. “Meet baby Marilou,” he wrote on Instagram at the time. “Becoming a father made the biggest impression on me.”
Declercq is hopeful that his daughter will also “do sports” when she grows up.
“My wife Tracey is an athlete so running is an option,” he says. “My daughter can race [bikes] if she wants too as well but it’s a dangerous sport. I am not a fearless rider. I am a thinker and see the danger before me. That’s always been the case. Especially on fast descents I want to take my life in my own hands and not depend on others but it’s also something you have to let go and avoid the panic or you just can’t race.”
Declercq’s next goal is the Tour de France. He was supposed to join Fabio Jakobsen in the Tour of the Algarve but Declercq broke his hand during a mountain bike ride at home. He now wears a 3D brace and is able to train in the Belgian Ardennes.
“I ride my Roubaix bike with extra wide tires for extra comfort and it goes well,” he says. “I leave for an altitude camp soon and the first days are always a bit more easy-going with low intensity so that is useful now.”
After the Tour de France, the Road World Championships will be held in Declercq’s home country. He hopes to be part of the Belgian team again but the competition for the available spots is always fierce. Harrogate 2019 was the only time he got the call from the national coach.
“My dream is to win a world championship but it’s absolutely not realistic,” he concludes. “Representing Belgium in September in Leuven would be a dream in itself. I hope to be there because that’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
If he’s there, you can bet he’ll spend a bunch of time on the front of the bunch, that famous grimace etched on his face, riding in support of his higher-profile teammates.