By David Hunter
“This is a brutal sport, not for the faint-hearted. I already knew that it was brutal, because youth riders suffer heavily as well. But a pro rider has to deal with a lot of doubts and insecurities as well, such as your contract, illnesses, injuries, form…
One thing I’ve learned is that if you do not like to ride your bike, you won’t hold on long in the cycling world, even if you are very good at it. Outsiders typically only see the bright side of cycling. What I learned about myself is that I can achieve more than initially thought if I continue to work hard and push my limits.”
These are the words of Benjamin Declercq, the latest rider to graduate from the Sport-Vlaanderen squad. The Flemish team is one of the best in the sport, a squad totally focused on giving young, local riders the chance to shine and earn contracts with the biggest teams in the sport. In recent years we’ve seen riders like Yves Lampaert, Victor Campenaerts, Edward Theuns, Jelle Wallays, Oli Naesen and Tim Declercq join the big leagues and do very well. If you can land a contract with Sport-Vlaanderen, you have a big chance of going further in the sport.
“Big squads have a designated leader for 95% of their races. The rest of the team are required to work for the leader(s) and typically get little to no freedom to undertake action like going in the break, attacking in the early final or hanging on as long as possible. Generally, when a young rider becomes professional, he does not have the legs to already be the leader (not bearing in mind the Evenepoels and Pogačars of this world). So they have to start at the bottom as a domestique and it is not easy working your way up because opportunities to show what you got are rare and some riders just aren’t that good in the role of domestique.
At Sport-Vlaanderen Baloise you get to fully discover yourself as a cyclist. They encourage you to get in the break, you get a lot of opportunities to ride finals if you have the legs, besides working for the team sprinter you get almost full freedom in the race. When a bigger team gives you a contract, you have most likely earned some stripes, putting you higher in the hierarchy than neo-professionals. From that position it is a lot easier to become a respectable rider.”
For those that don’t know Ben, I’ll try and bring you up to speed. He’s a fast man, but you won’t see him contesting in many flat sprints, his speciality is when the road kicks up. This means he doesn’t always get a large number of opportunities; he needs to be patient and what for the right type of finish. One race that is great for him is the Tour of Oman.
“2019 started very good for me because I was in excellent shape. In the Etoile de Bessèges I didn’t find a terrain that suited me, but in Oman I had 2 top 10 finishes against some of the main competitors of the classics campaign. I was in excellent form at that race this year, but besides that they also have some stages that really suit me, and I can perform well in the heat.”
Next stop, the Classics.
“Shortly after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad I got a type of flu and high fever. It took a very long time to heal because the disease spread to my lungs. I tried to force my way back, because the Flanders Classics were my main goal and I have never been at my best at those races. But in doing so I put too much effort on my body when it wasn’t ready yet.
It was a disaster. Omloop het Nieuwsblad was the only race I operated at full strength. In this race, on the most crucial part, before the Wolvenberg, I lost so many positions when the peloton made an S-movement (it often does). It took a lot of energy to get back to the front. Then missing a few meters on top of the Berendries to get to the front group was a little disappointing.
Due to my illness I couldn’t compete for the next 4 weeks and when I started racing again I rode subsequently E3, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold race. I completely wasn’t ready for these races, but wanted to do them anyway as they were my big goal. A mistake I shall not make again.”
Life is all about learning, this particular lesson is particularly important for all cyclists. Even if you are going to miss your target races, you must listen to your body and not force it. Saying that, I’m sure we can all see why someone would be tempted to race, especially if you are chasing a new contract, or a move to another team.
Ben was hoping that he would catch the attention of a larger squad, but after a challenging classics campaign, the pressure was starting to build. If he was to get a move in 2020, he needed some big results. The next block of racing featured some rolling hills, in the 4 Days of Dunkirk, the Tour of Luxembourg and the Belgium Tour. Top 20 finishes in all of these races showed a level of consistency, but still not that big result.
“It is certainly not easy because almost every team sends a GC leader to these races. Although I don’t really see myself as a GC rider, it could be possible to ride top 10 if there isn’t a long TT or a mountain stage in the race. In order to become a good GC rider I should have to improve at long climbs (+10 minutes) and manage a more aerodynamic position in time trials. Arkéa-Samsic has enough GC contenders so this will not become my main point of focus in the future.”
One day races are where Ben can use his attributes to chase wins, especially those with a grippy finish. The big result he was waiting for arrived towards the end of July in GP Cerami, when he managed a 2nd place.
“It has a finish that is very suited to my abilities. It ascends for 1k at 3-4%. On those type of finishes it is much easier to get a good position, because there is typically more space than in a normal bunch sprint. Since I weigh less than most sprinters, the ratio watt/kg becomes slightly more important and turns into an advantage. I also like to sprint on a big gear whereas in some sprints you have to ride +110rpm.”
Big gear grinder! The good results continued to flow, with impressive performances in the Arctic Race of Norway, Schaal Sels and Druivenkoers – Overijse. It was enough to make the bosses at Arkéa-Samsic offer a contract, but it’s only for one year.
“I know it is a risk. What gives me peace of mind though is knowing that if things go bad in cycling, I can still rely on my college degree and go for a normal job. I hope the saying ‘fortune favours the brave’ will apply to me, because, though I have a backup with my studies, it would be very hard to already say goodbye to cycling.”
I really like that Ben is taking a big risk and going for it. He could have played it safe, but he’s decided to risk it all in the hope of hitting it big. Knowing that he has a masters degree in Applied Economics certainly gives a little safety net, but I don’t expect him to return to “normal” life anytime soon.
You might have noticed that Arkéa-Samsic have signed a number of big GC riders, as they look to win races, earn points, and get into the World Tour. This will certainly be different to the days with Sport-Vlaanderen.
“I most certainly am excited. I have never had a teammate who achieved major success in big races. I hope to learn some of the little things like the preparation of the race, coping with the pressure, training intensity and efforts… I will be glad to try help them get some big victories.”
Ben won’t be making the journey to Brittany by himself, he’ll be joined by his current teammate, Christophe Noppe.
“In the 14 years that I have been cycling, Christophe has been my (team)mate for 10 of them. He lives very close to me and we get along very well, during and after the races. That he joins Arkéa-Samsic with me, ensures that it is not a full step in the unknown and I am glad he will be by my side also next year.”
What role will Ben fill?
“In general I think they will put me in the lead out as we have a lot of sprinters and on hilly courses I will operate as a domestique. When the race ends with a short uphill finish I hope they will have faith in me, and I can ride for my own account.
My strength is that I can push high watts/kg on short intervals. If you train specifically on those intervals, you can always get a little better. In order to be competitive in the final of 200k+ races, my engine needs to get a little stronger. That can be obtained by improving the form, long endurance rides and riding big races that really push you to the limit.”
If you didn’t know, Ben is the younger brother of Tim Declercq, the QuickStep rider. Their relationship also has a professional side to it, as Tim is Ben’s coach.
“I like to put it to the side that he’s my brother when we talk about my training. Fact is that he both has the theoretical and practical knowledge, as he is still learning (for 12 years meanwhile :P) to be a trainer. I know he’ll do great, after his career, coaching young and experienced cyclists. We train together as much as our schedules allow us to, we play video games together (the notorious AOEII) and we catch up with each other very often too, so you can say that we have a very good relationship.”
There’s a lot I like about Benjamin Declercq, or Benjatn, as he’s known to his friends. He’s served his time at Sport-Vlaanderen and has earned his shot at the big time. Like everyone, he made some mistakes this season, but it sounds like he has learnt from them and will be better for them. He joins a team with a number of top riders: Nairo Quintana, Nacer Bouhanni, Dan McLay and Warren Barguil to name a few. This means that chances will be hard to come by, but I believe in him, and crucially he believes in himself. If the team have done their homework, they will know that Benjatn has the ability to be one of the very best in an uphill sprint, they just need to put him into position.
Ladies and gentleman, I give you my third rider to watch in 2020, Benjamin Declercq.
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