Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg’s long pro career – which had lasted nine seasons at the highest level of the sport – looked like it had come to an inglorious end in the wake of Team Qhubeka–Nexthash folding last year. That left Janse van Rensburg scrambling for a contract, but the notoriously fickle transfer market was particularly challenging this year. Still, the 33-year-old South African kept the faith.
Janse van Rensburg was training throughout the winter as if he were still a pro cyclist, despite the fact no teams came along. And then, in late April, his patience was rewarded with a contract offer from Lotto-Soudal. From the brink of retirement just two months ago, Janse van Rensburg will now be lining up for his sixth Tour de France next week. It’s quite the story.
“I heard last Monday that I was part of the team,” Janse van Rensburg says from his home in Girona. “I was very happy. They told me a while ago they were considering me, so it became a goal for me to make the team. It’s quite unbelievable to see where I came from, from not having a ride at all to making it to the Tour de France. If you would have told me a few weeks ago I would not have believed it,” he smiles.
“I received so many great reactions. Literally hundreds of them. It was overwhelming, and I am so grateful for that support. It’s really heartwarming to read that people see my story or see me as an inspiration.”
After Team Qhubeka folded Janse van Rensburg was one of seven riders left without a team. Domenico Pozzovivo and Simon Clarke made a successful return to the WorldTour early on in the season, but Janse van Rensburg was kept waiting a long time.
“I was still preparing this winter as if I would get a contract,” he reflects. “I did need some goals to work towards. The national championships in February were one, and the African championships a month later too. As a rider without a team those were the only races I could enter. I had some inspiration from other riders like Julien Vermote who was in the same situation [and landed a late contract wth Alpecin-Fenix].”
Janse van Rensburg won the national road title – his second one after 2017 – and came in second in the road race of the continental championships. He also picked up a silver medal with the South African team in the team time trial. By then it was the end of March.
“I kind of hoped that teams at some point realized they needed more riders, but these were testing times indeed. Hope and motivation started to wane. I accepted this was it, and I was going to retire. And then this opportunity with Lotto-Soudal came along and it was amazing,” Janse van Rensburg enthuses.
Lotto-Soudal signed both Janse van Rensburg and Spanish rider Carlos Barbero (also ex-Team Qhubeka). The goal was to race more races and get more points in the team’s battle against relegation. The contract came at a time that Janse van Rensburg had already travelled back to South Africa to begin the next phase of his life.
“We were living in Girona. My wife and I packed everything up. We stored the important stuff and I sold my cycling stuff to fellow riders … I sold my car as well, and we booked a flight to South Africa,” Janse van Rensburg recalls. “Two hours after I landed, I received an email from John Lelangue [the Lotto-Soudal general manager] that he wanted to talk. That same day I had an offer on the table. I called my landlord in Girona again and told him to keep the apartment open because I was coming back.
“Luckily my wife and I could move back in straight away. We don’t have children and that made the decision to keep trying easier. If you have kids and have no salary to feed them, it becomes more difficult,” he laughs.
His first race of his new contract was Eschborn-Frankfurt where he came in 22nd in the peloton. Then followed the six-day stage race Four Days of Dunkirk, and a string of Belgian one-day races where he helped Arnaud De Lie and Caleb Ewan.
“I came out much stronger mentally from these testing times,” he says. “It helped me grow as a person too. My first race back was 1 May and I was super excited to be back. You look at your job and cycling with a new set of eyes. I found a new appreciation for it. You enjoy it more than before. I felt like I was like a duck in water. This was the place I needed to be. I was where I had to be.”
The dream story continues with the Tour de France. Janse van Rensburg rode and completed the race from 2015 to 2019 with Qhubeka, with his best result an eighth place finish in the bunch sprint of stage eight in 2015.
“This Tour de France is a little bit different. It’s the first time without Qhubeka,” Janse van Rensburg explains. “Lotto-Soudal have a different team culture but the expectations from me are roughly the same. The strategy to go for stages was also the objective with Qhubeka. There are many similarities, we have a great sprinter in Caleb and I have a lot more responsibility in the sprint train.”
With only 22 race days this season the South African champion’s preparation might not seem ideal, but he does see the positive side of the situation.
“My fitness level was always good. You can dedicate much more time in training when you don’t have races. The best riders in the world don’t race a lot nowadays. I could focus on training without races distracting me,” Janse van Rensburg explains. “It’s easier to reach a high level without racing, is what I want to say. I spent months training without races and that gave me a really good base level. I think I am still quite fresh after 22 race days only.”
Janse van Rensburg will be an important rider in the sprint preparation for Caleb Ewan. The Australian sprinter had bad luck in the Giro d’Italia and is eager to show his best form in the Tour de France again. Janse van Rensburg has big shoes to fill with Belgian rider Jasper De Buyst still out with an injury. De Buyst was an integral part of 75% of Ewan’s wins.
“I only raced with Caleb one day in Bruges a couple of weeks ago. Now the Tour de France is here and it’s a shame we don’t have Jasper here. He is so important. I feel like I am experienced enough because I have been there before, riding with a sprinter in the Tour. Caleb is experienced enough as well and he knows what he wants. We have some strong guys around him to pull it off.”
Janse van Rensburg is one of two South Africans confirmed for the Tour de France – Daryl Impey (Israel Premier-Tech is the other – with Louis Meintjes on the longlist at Intermarché-Wanty. Janse van Rensburg enjoys watching the development of African cycling, and was part of the team when Daniel Teklehaimanot rode the Tour de France as first black African, wearing the polka dots jersey for a couple of days.
“Eritrea is really making leaps forward. Biniam Girmay has a breakthrough year, but there are many young talents. They have a very exciting future. Rwanda is also doing really well with development. In South Africa we are sadly at stalemate and maybe we even take a step down with many teams folding. There aren’t many opportunities left for South African riders. I hope the teams and the sponsors return. Eritrea and Rwanda are leading the way right now and I hope South Africa catches up again. We need to develop the grass roots. Not having Qhubeka anymore makes a huge difference. You now do it the hard way, live in Europe and hope you get noticed.”
There’s just one more week until Janse van Rensburg will line up at the biggest race in the world as one of the national champions. In many countries, however, new champions were anointed last weekend.
“This is my second Tour de France in the national champion’s jersey [first year was in 2017]. Back then I could still have our flag vertically and therefore bigger. Now the rules are stricter on how to position the flag and the sponsors but I love what Lotto-Soudal did with it. Having a national jersey on means more cheering from the fans at the side of the road. On TV people notice you more as well. You stand out a bit more and it’s nice. Sometimes riders in the peloton don’t realize immediately which team I am with and I can be a bit incognito in the sprint,” he adds with a smile.
For now, the biggest cycling circus of the year is on the cusp of beginning and Janse van Rensburg is eagerly counting down the days.
“I look forward most to the sprint stages to see what we can do. I am also looking forward to the Roubaix stage. It’s always a bit of a gamble. If your gamble works out it can be a nice day [on the cobbles] but it can also be equally disastrous. It depends on the tactic of the team but I hope I can go in the breakaway that day.
“I am not looking forward to the Alps,” he continues. “For some reason it’s always as if the time cut is tighter in the Alps. In the Alps you always have to ride flat out while the Pyrenees are a bit more relaxed. Sadly, there is not really a grupetto mentality anymore. It’s more and more every man for himself. It’s go until you can’t any more for many.”
Janse van Rensburg isn’t just riding for himself, of course, with one of the fastest sprinters in the race likely to be tucked into his slipstream.
“I have a responsibility with Caleb now and make sure there is some group to get him across the finish,” Janse van Rensburg explains, before adding with a little anticipation: “Hopefully we get to enjoy that hamburger together in Paris.”