Danny van Poppel wants to be the best lead-out man in the world
The Dutchman is embracing his new role as Sam Bennett's last man in the sprints.
The Dutchman is embracing his new role as Sam Bennett's last man in the sprints.
Danny van Poppel (Bora-Hansgrohe) has taken a new turn in his career. After being the lead sprinter on teams like Trek Factory Racing, Team Sky, and Jumbo-Visma, the Dutchman now focuses on being the lead-out for Sam Bennett at Bora-Hansgrohe. That new partnership first bore fruit on May 1 at Eschborn-Frankfurt but Van Poppel has bigger ambitions. “I want to become the best lead-out rider in the peloton,” he says from his new home in Monaco.
Van Poppel started his career with the Rabobank development team in 2012. He was one of the best juniors of his generation and raced alongside riders like Dylan van Baarle and Rick Zabel that year.
“I was a big talent as a junior,” he says. “Before I was 15 or 16 years old I was one of the smallest in my family. They still call me the little one. In the junior category I made that growth spurt and became the biggest of our family,” he adds with a laugh.
Van Poppel is the youngest of the two sons of former cyclists Jean Paul van Poppel and Leontine van der Lienden. Danny’s older brother Boy is part of Intermarché-Wanty Gobert.
Van Poppel left the Rabobank development team after one year when Vacansoleil-DCM scouted the youngster. He made his debut in the Tour de France aged 19 which, 10 years ago, was still very rare. In his very first sprint in France, the young Dutchman finished in third place behind Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff.
This year is Van Poppel’s 10th as a pro cyclist. Over the years he has been a consistent performer with many strong finishes, but for a sprinter Van Poppel doesn’t win that often. In all, he has 18 wins on his palmares, headlined by a stage win at the 2015 Vuelta a España.
This year, though, he has made the switch to lead-out rider and that makes him happy. Not least because he’s found the sort of consistency he’s long been searching for.
“I was always a bit of both: fast but also a good Classics rider,” he says. “In cycling you need to super-specialize nowadays. I had a high level at Classics and in bunch sprints but now I have reached that consistent level all-round. People start to notice it now too.
“Things are finally falling into place,” he continues. “I knew I had it in me but it was always highs and lows. There were injuries in my upper leg that are luckily behind me after much time investigating but it also is a mental thing. Now I feel I have everything under control so much more and I have become more consistent.”
Danny’s father Jean-Paul won 22 stages in Grand Tours, nine of those in the Tour de France. He feels that, unconsciously, his father’s legacy has been something of a burden.
“I always said it didn’t influence me but you do put the pressure on yourself because of the name and because of my dad’s wins,” he says. “People also always said Boy was the hard worker and I was the super talented one but that has changed now. I invest a lot in my training. It’s a great compliment to hear I am professional because for long I was seen as the guy who just had it easy all the time.”
Van Poppel works with a mental coach he has known since his days in cyclocross where he was a successful junior.
“Nico van Hest helps me put many things in perspective,” Van Poppel says. “The COVID year was a tough year for me and things weren’t going great. I bumped into Nico near my house one day. I always said I could manage on my own but it’s very helpful to speak with someone who has known me since I was 10.
“He told me: ‘Danny, you never fought to finish races. You always just won your races. You never learned to suffer.’ During that COVID year I started to fight for place 20 or fight to finish races. That was a turning point. I toughened up. We both agreed that 2021 was a vital year for my career.”
When Bora-Hansgrohe came along to sign Van Poppel as part of Sam Bennett’s lead-out train – together with Shane Archbold and Ryan Mullen – he felt it was the right time.
“Last year my girlfriend Stéphane and I were discussing this,” he says. “I literally told her that if the best sprinter in the world came along with a great team, I will become the lead-out. I’d rather win 10 races with that sprinter than be top three or top five all the time and maybe win one or two races myself. Bora came along and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.”
Sam Bennett is complimentary about his new lead-out man. The Irishman doesn’t only consider Van Poppel a teammate but also a friend. They both live in Monaco and often train together. Bennett is happy to find this once-adversary by his side now.
“I raced against him for a few years so I know he can handle a bike,” Bennett says. “He is real racer who finds gaps and creates gaps in the final. I trust him completely and that trust happened really quick. We did seven sprints this season in which he dropped me off phenomenally. I didn’t have the legs to finish it off before but in Frankfurt I could finish it off.”
The relationship between a lead-out rider and their sprinter is all about faith but also about a serious turn of speed and leadership.
“From 250 to 150 meters to go the speed is going up or stays constant,” Bennett explains. “We need to all trust each other and work as a unit. We need to look after each other and keep each other safe. Then hit the front at the right moment.
“Danny is a really strong guy who is consistent in his efforts. He is a power sprinter who can go for a long time with so much torque. His timing is always impeccable. He finds a route back to the front without killing my legs. You need massive power and speed to do that. He is very calm, finds a gap, looks over the shoulder to see where I am and then generates the power and the speed.
“He has a lot of qualities. The whole team working that well together motivates me to give my all and finish it off for them.”
The celebration on the line after Van Poppel led Bennett to victory in Eschborn-Frankfurt showed just how much the win meant. The Dutchman saw how all the work they put in finally paid off.
“It was a new experience for me too, to see that it finally succeeded,” he says. “It was frustrating that we were just missing out in previous races but we knew the reasons. In Frankfurt everything fell into place. This has been a long process in the making so I already visualized how we would do that when Bora-Hansgrohe came along last May.
“It was a wonderful first win together. Sam and I have become friends. We do not only race together but we also train together. We meet up outside of the races too with our girlfriends for a coffee. I also started analyzing sprints so much more often than when I was a sprinter myself.”
Van Poppel believes his 10 years of experience as a sprinter mean he’s got plenty to offer Bennett in the fast finishes.
“I have so much experience because I turned pro young,” he says. “Things are moving so fast in the sprint and it’s your intuition you need to follow. At Intermarché-Wanty I did many sprints alone after Boy dropped me in the last few kilometers. It taught me so much and gave me so much experience. It’s all about staying calm and see what the best solution is. That might even be pulling the brakes for a better position. I think that’s in the genes too. You have it or you don’t.”
Van Poppel gets great satisfaction from using that experience to help Bennett. To him, there isn’t a big difference between winning a race or leading out the winner in the sprint. He is completely at ease with leaving his own sprinting days behind. It’s like a switch was flicked in his head.
“The difference between winning myself or winning with Sam is not that big,” he says. “I found that strange too but I guess I already figured for myself that I want to be the best lead-out in the world.
“I don’t have the urge to sprint myself when Sam is around. This new job as a lead-out came at the time I was really ready for it. I am at peace with the fact that Sam is so fast and I love riding for him now. It doesn’t matter to me anymore where I finish.
“This is now my new job and it makes me so much happier. I am committing 100% to this new role. As a lead-out you tend to organize more in the race. Maybe I am evolving towards a leader now. The team sees that role for me too in the long term.
[Michael] Mørkøv is an example of what I hope to achieve. As a lead-out rider, you have a few more years in the career too.”
Winning Eschborn-Frankfurt together was a big moment for Van Poppel and Bennett. It’s a WorldTour race that attracts a quality field of sprinters. But the biggest moment of the year for both Van Poppel and Bennett will be the Tour de France. The Irishman won two stages in 2020 and took home the green jersey. Van Poppel is looking forward to the challenge of heading to the Tour as a lead-out rider.
“The fight in the Tour de France between the sprinters and their lead-outs will be great,” Van Poppel says. “I do think we showed [at Eschborn-Frankfurt] that they have to take us into account.”
Based on how things went at Eschborn-Frankfurt, it’s pretty hard to argue with that.