Justine Ghekiere: “it’s never too late to start”

The 26-year-old Belgian on going from rediscovering cycling during lockdown to representing Belgium at the worlds in 2022.

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Like many who enter the pro peloton later in life, Justine Ghekiere’s introduction to racing was borne out of an enjoyment of the sport. 

The phrase, “just for fun,” is a refrain that runs through our conversation whenever Ghekiere talks about why she started cycling, then riding on Zwift, and eventually racing. 

She has been riding bikes since she was 16, “because I wanted to do something with my dad,” she says. “But it was just for fun. There was no competition or anything. But there were also people when I ride my bike saying, ‘do you do competition? You ride very good.’ And I said, ‘no, it’s just for fun.’”

For a while, cycling was merely a pastime for Ghekiere while she studied at university, taking part in myriad other sports as part of her degree. “I didn’t have that time to do a lot on my bike,” she says. And of course, she had to schedule in the requisite student experience: “and I go out with my friends.”

Lockdown changed all that, however, and in 2020, forced out of the gym where she worked as a personal trainer – including spinning classes – Ghekiere, like thousands of others, turned to Zwift to stay active.

“I think I was addicted at the end to Zwift,” she says. “Sometimes two or three times a day on my rollers. And I liked it a lot.”

She even entered a competition to complete the most kilometres in a week, and won (she can’t remember the exact figure but places it at around 1,200 km) – followed by a workout, which she also ‘won’. “The man who did the test with me, he said, ‘your powers are very good. Maybe I can send it to some UCI teams in Belgium,’” she recalls. “And so it all begins and I started cycling in competition two years ago.”

Ghekiere signed for Belgian Continental squad Bingoal Casino – Chevalmeire Cycling Team and was thrown in at the deep end of Classics racing. Her first race was the 1.1 Le Samyn des Dames where she finished in 73rd place, 4’02” down and in the company of Jolien d’Hoore –  who she will now take direction from at her new team, AG-Insurance Soudal Quick-Step.  

“It was hard,” she says of those early races. “I remember the first moment I was in the peloton I thought ‘oh my god, where am I?’ I was scared and I didn’t like it. I thought that’s not for me because on the rollers you have nobody, just on your bike and then when you have 100 people around you, it was not so funny.”

Despite her misgivings, she was buoyed by her results. “I thought ‘hmm, maybe I can do some good things,’ when I compare it to other riders.” 

Just a few weeks later Ghekiere was selected to race Flanders – barely a month into her career. She would also be competing in her first Women’s WorldTour race, but she was undeterred. “I was selected for big races and I liked it more and more,” she says. 

Like many latecomers to the peloton, Ghekiere’s drawback in races was her positioning in the bunch. “My positioning wasn’t good. I was always at the back of the peloton,” she recalls. “So that was a weak point but I knew I had the power to do more and to race more.”

“I’m still working on it to figure out a good positioning in the peloton. But in the last year I showed I can do it. It’s been good.” 

After a successful 2021 season that culminated in Ghekiere placing 12th overall at the notoriously gruelling Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche – including two top-10 finishes on hilly stages – the then-25-year-old was picked up by Plantur Pura for 2022. 

“I’m very happy that I was in the last year with Plantur,” she says. “I learned a lot. Everything was very good. The little things like food at the race, everything was there for us.

“For me it was very good to learn and to do and I saw I got better and better when I follow their advice, so yeah Plantur definitely helped me to step up to a higher level.”

Such was that level in 2022 that she was selected to represent Belgium at the world championships in Wollongong. 

“I was very honoured that I was selected. I hoped a little bit for it. Because I worked hard and the last results of my season were also good. And then when I was selected I was very happy and I think it was maybe the nicest moment of the year, in Australia.”

Riding in support of Lotte Kopecky, who was one of the favourites to win, Ghekiere managed a respectable 19th place for herself. 

“I had a great time there and it was also a little bit stressful because you don’t want to disappoint Belgium, and also for Lotte, she has a big chance to win so you want to do the best for her. So for me it was also a little bit stressful but I think I did all to help Lotte and I think it was one of my best races, also. 

“So I’m very happy with the result and, okay, second for Lotte but with Annemiek, you never know what she is going to do. To beat Annemiek you have to do something special because she is just on another level.”

Although she enjoyed her time with Plantur Pura and is grateful for the support afforded to her by the team, when the opportunity to join AG Insurance – Soudal Quick-Step came along, she couldn’t turn it down. 

“First of all, I liked the vision of the team because of the young riders and the middle and older riders. And that older riders will help the younger riders,” she says. “And I think that combination will be very good, and I think we will show our team in races for sure.” 

One of the most important deciding factors, however, was the opportunity to race alongside a rider who inspired her in her early racing days, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. 

“I think the most important [reason] that I changed to that team was maybe for Ashleigh Moolman,” Ghekiere confesses. “Because I think as a type of rider, I can compare a little bit to her. And she wants to share her experience with the younger [riders]. And I think I can learn a lot from her in the race also, because sometimes I feel this year, I had less experience and then I have to help others, but when you miss the experience, it’s also difficult. So I think I can learn a lot from Ashleigh and she also has big goals and to help her to achieve her goals for me, also makes me a stronger rider.” 

Ghekiere also sees parallels between Moolman Pasio, who is ten years her senior, and herself.

“She also started later. And she is now 37 and it’s her last year. But she is on such a high level now. She is better than ever before. And for me I looked up to her. She is also on Zwift. When I started on Zwift, she was the only rider I knew. So on Instagram I followed because she was the only I knew from Zwift. And now I’m in her team and I know I can help her and so it’s for me an honour to do that.”

Although helping her teammates will be the primary goal, Ghekiere isn’t planning to shy away from opportunities for herself, either. “I hope maybe when I see a chance for myself, I can go also,” she says. “I grow a lot this year. And I hope I can do that for the next year also. And to show myself.”

She may have cut her teeth at the Classics but Ghekiere is most comfortable when climbing, particularly in stage races. In 2022, she placed 10th overall and took home the QOM classification at the 2.Pro LOTTO Thüringen Ladies Tour and 14th at the WorldTour level Simac Ladies Tour. 

“I prefer the stage races because they are less hectic maybe and also I think one of my stronger points is that, tiredness is good – so at the end of a week I’m not too tired. I recover well. I think that’s an important point in a stage race. So yes, I think for next year I will focus on more stage races.” 

Does that include the Tour de France Femmes? “I really want to do that. I hope to do it this year. I will do all [I can] to be in the best form to do that race because I really want to do the Tour.”

She may only have been racing for two seasons but Ghekiere has come a long way since her university days. Does she ever miss her ‘normal’ life? 

“What I like about the racing and the whole other life now is that I see a lot of the world. You go to places where you would never go before. So I like that point a lot,” she says. 

“And also you get to know other people, so that’s also nice. But then the other point is that you miss sometimes your family and your friends. I just had off-season and I do a lot with friends. And then I thought that’s something I miss. Because you have to offer so much for the sport and on the social side it’s less than when I was working in fitness and I did things at the weekend.”

It’s all worth it, though, for a promising career that Ghekiere rightly points out could span another ten years despite her late start. 

“I hope to inspire other girls, that it’s never too late to start because I started at 24 and now I’m 26, and I think I’m also a young rider as I see in the peloton because yeah, the big names are all around 30 or something. So, go for it.”

If she follows the trajectory of the first two years of her career, she could be looking at an impressive palmares by the age of 36.

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