Meet Niki Terpstra, the determined realist

The Dutchman hasn't won since the Tour of Flanders in 2018 but he still has the same passion for racing he's always had.

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Niki Terpstra is 37 years old but still has the same youthful image he’s had since the start of his career. Since he turned pro with Milram in 2007 he has compiled an impressive list of top results: a total of 22 wins including several national titles, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the E3-prijs Harelbeke, Le Samyn, and of course two Monuments: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. With a list that long it’s hard to choose a favorite moment. 

“It’s always hard to compare wins,” he explains. “The entire list is special to me. The Monuments were amazing but also the small races I fought really hard for are worth a lot. Winning the world team time trial title four times [with QuickStep] is something people tend to forget but it means a great deal to me. I am really proud of those titles because I was always into working on those small details year after year.”

Terpstra joined TotalEnergies in 2019 but he has yet to ride Paris-Roubaix for the French team. The 2014 winner of the queen of the cobbled classics is looking forward to the 2021 edition but has become a realistic man after many setbacks in the past few seasons. “I still have enough ambitions and work hard for my goals but it’s also realistic to say it will be hard to win Roubaix again,” he tells me.

Niki Terpstra winning the Tour of Flanders 2018 after a long solo.

The past years have been hard for Terpstra. His last victory was the 2018 Tour of Flanders. In 2019 he came back to Flanders to defend his title but crashed in the opening hours forcing him to miss out on Paris-Roubaix too. Last summer he crashed during a training ride in the Netherlands. He fell chest first onto the basalt rocks around a dyke and ended up in the ICU with broken ribs and a collapsed lung.  

“That was a huge blow yes, especially when you take into account how long it took me to come back from those injuries,” he says. “That was hard but I am happy I am doing so well again. That period wasn’t fun, to say the least, but it’s behind me now.” 

That crash hampered his performance in the autumn classics of 2020 but the spring season of 2021 also didn’t go to plan. Terpstra joined breakaways and supported his teammate Anthony Turgis who had a breakthrough season on the cobbled roads of Belgium. His own best result was a 46th place in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

“I had expectations and goals but it just didn’t go well,” he says. “Not reaching your own goals is disappointing but maybe my goals were too high because I was used to those goals? Things have changed in me and I am happy to just be there now. I don’t assume to ride finals like I used to and am happy when things simply go well. That gives me positive energy.

“I am not as fast as my top years and realistically I won’t get there again. It’s also the way cycling careers go. Ups and downs. Don’t get me wrong because I will keep on fighting and trying every race but my level now just also shows how good I was in those years when there were days when everything just fell into place.” 

Terpstra now also enjoys supporting riders like Turgis whom he calls the most constant of riders in the Spring Classics. 

“It would have been great for him and the team if there would have been a real standout result,” Terpstra says. “He is a very self-conscious guy and I like helping him. There are always things you can learn [from others] but in races you also have to make decisions yourself. He listens to advice but has a good vision [on racing] himself as well.”

Niki Terpstra in attack mode during Dwars door Vlaanderen 2021.

When Terpstra moved to TotalEnergies in 2019 it was a big move and culture switch coming from QuickStep where he spent eight seasons. He looks back at the move with fondness.

“You heard those stories about French teams being disorganized but this team is really well organized,” he explains. “I have also seen them develop through the years and I am happy to have played a part in it. I would have loved to have given them a victory but I am trying my best. It was a big change but I think it just was a cool move to go here.” 

It’s not clear whether Terpstra will be part of the French team again in 2022. He is not thinking of quitting yet but can’t say anything yet about the team he will continue his career with. 

“I would love to continue because I really enjoy this sport and everything around it,” he says. “It’s just a cool sport. Yes, this spring wasn’t good but then I had a good reset. I am still crazy about this sport but I put the bar a bit lower now. Sometimes you have to have peace in lesser results despite having the same ambition and drive.

“I still work hard enough. Nothing has changed there and I assume that I will be still be there [as a pro cyclist] next year. I will use the next races to show myself and gain the trust from teams. I just want to confirm my form now.”

The team dynamics at TotalEnergies will change drastically next year with the signing of Peter Sagan and his entourage of Daniel Oss, Juraj Sagan, and Maciej Bodnar.

“I think it’s great for TotalEnergies that Peter Sagan joins,” Terpstra says. “More quality is always good and it would be nice to be a part of that too but we are working on next year and I can’t say anything just yet.” 

Terpstra isn’t yet thinking about his future after cycling. And looking back at most of 20 years in the sport, he doesn’t have any big regrets.

“Of course, there are always things to regret but I am happy with the overall picture of my career,” he says. “And you know, you learn from mistakes. Maybe learning from one mistake just gave me the advantage in the next race that came?”

As for his next races, Terpstra is in the midst of a busy few months. He feels the second half of his season really started in August where he was once again battling for a victory in the final stage of the Arctic Race of Norway. 

“That was a really great day because it went so well,” he says. “You can take confidence from a result like that [Terpstra finished second – ed.] and take that to the next races. I am happy to be racing again. This summer I did a mountain bike marathon because I didn’t have a lot of races. It was a tough week with days between four and seven hours on the bike but I really enjoyed myself. I am now back racing on the road and although I like training too I do well in the rhythm of races.” 

He will represent the Netherlands at the European Championships this week in Trento and then go to the Tour of Luxembourg. He also hopes to get selected for the Road World Championships in Belgium at the end of September.

“I would really love to ride the World Championships in Belgium,” he says. ‘It’s now up to me to show and prove myself to be selected in the upcoming weeks. If I am not selected, I just didn’t do well enough. If I am selected for the Dutch team, I will ride in a support role and share my experience with the others.

“Belgium is a special country to me because I had my biggest victories there. To start there in orange would be really great.”

Terpstra in action at the 2019 Road World Championships in Harrogate.

And of course, Terpstra is looking forward to the postponed Paris-Roubaix on October 3 – the race he won back in 2014. It’s more than three years since he last raced at Roubaix, and he’s surely missed it. At 37, he wouldn’t even be one of the oldest winners of a race where experience counts.

“Riders who have the ability to ride well over cobbles never lose that,” he says. “Experience is a real bonus in this race but I have to be realistic yet again. It’s not realistic to say that I will win it again but it won’t be for a lack of trying. My form is good and it’s a race that suits me really well. On the other hand, if Anthony [Turgis] is having a great day I will be there to help him.”

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