Bart Lemmen: From captain in the military to Visma-Lease a Bike’s Tour team in 18 months

Replacing Sepp Kuss in Visma-Lease a Bike’s Tour de France team is a 28-year-old rider who was working as a military captain just 18 months ago. Rouleur sat down with him in the spring to discuss his whirlwind career change

Take a look through the results of the first two men’s WorldTour stage races of 2024, the Tour Down Under and UAE Tour, and you’ll find an unfamiliar name populating the general classification top 10 in both races. Finishing fifth in Australia and 10th in the desert was 28-year-old Dutchman Bart Lemmen. Fast forward to the end of May and the Tour of Norway and Lemmen is there again, this time finishing second on GC. Inspect a little further, and it’ll quickly become apparent that Visma-Lease a Bike’s new signing has only been competing on the professional circuit since 2022.

Just where has Lemmen appeared from? Well, for most of his adult life, Lemmen has been an officer and captain in the Dutch military, leading five platoons and being responsible for protecting one of the country’s air force bases. Now, however, he’s regularly mixing it with, and beating, some of the sport’s most storied pros. 

“I still can't really get my head around the fact that I was up Willunga Hill [in Australia] with Julian Alaphilippe and Simon Yates. That’s still really weird to realise,” he laughs about the January race that kickstarted his extraordinary first season in the WorldTour. “However, the next race they’ll be there too – and I will want to beat them. Before I was watching Julian becoming the world champion, and now I’m trying to beat him. That’s the new reality.

Joining the military 

Lemmen had a typical upbringing. Born in Utrecht, Netherlands, he was interested in various sports as a child, playing football and tennis among other things. Aged 17, he ran 10km in a time of 36:30 without any proper training, prompting him to be scouted by a local running club. “Back then, it was like, woah, that was quite fast, and it showed some endurance capabilities,” he remembers.

But a career as a sportsman never crossed his mind. “I was more focused on school as being a pro athlete was never within reach. I was good, but not good enough to reach a pro level in any way. And I wasn’t even trying to. I was 18 – I was interested in drinking beer and going out!”

After leaving school, he entered the Dutch Air Force Military Academy in 2014 aged 18, inspired by his grandfather – and a certain Hollywood movie. “I was quite fascinated by aircraft, but also you watch Top Gun and think, ‘that’s fucking awesome!' I applied to be a pilot, did some tests, but I wasn’t good enough. I asked what else the air force has to offer, and the security part of the air force just spoke to me, working with the platoon, being the leader of that. There were some army elements to it as well – guys have rifles and you can do deployments.”

And thus Lemman’s military career began. Over the following eight-and-a-half years, he was first a commander in a security platoon, responsible for the Volkel air base security, before he was then promoted to a captain’s role, a job that involved training five platoons on tactics and military exercises, as well as leading shooting ranges. “I did not expect any attack to come to the main gate, but you train for every kind of scenario.”

A couple of times a year, he would lead gruelling military exercises. “The hardest one was a four-day exercise with about 90 guys and five officers,” he recalls. “It was raining, all the stuff got wet, we were sleeping in a forest, and just hoping that the sleeping bag was going to be OK by the end of the night. We would have five minutes to build a sleeping place, and if we didn’t we’d have to fold everything back up and all have to walk again. We had no sleep, and we had to do a lot of walking and assignments while we were in pieces. I was messed up as well, but I could never show it, never say how hard it was, as it could bring down the morale of the group so much.

“It was literally like the army programs you see on TV now: walking through the night, not sure of where the end point is, carrying lots of stuff, and bricks in your bags. It’s very hard, both physically and mentally.”

A whirlwind career change

The year after he started military training, Lemmen met his girlfriend, Nienke. She was a member of a cycling club and persuaded him to join as well. By March 2017, Lemmen began racing, and won in his second race. “I knew quite quickly that this level [the lowest category] was not my end station.” A year later, he progressed to the elite level, but in 2018 his military training became more intense, and weekend and night shifts meant that he had to freeze his promising cycling progression.

“But then 2021 came and I finished my job as a platoon commander and became a captain,” he reflects. “That’s when my cycling career really started as I could work between 8am and 5pm and was now able to train 10-12 hours a week with some structured training.” When racing resumed after the Covid-enforced lay-off, he won the Topcompetitie, the highest competition in the Netherlands that is usually won by Continental riders. “And I was a club rider!” he says.

That earned him a contract with the third-tier team VolkerWessels in 2022, although he continued to work in the military. A series of impressive results, including one UCI win, prompted the ProTeam Human Powered Health to take a punt on him in 2023, resulting in him leaving his army post. After just one season, and with yet more eye-catching performances against WorldTour opposition, Merijn Zeeman, Visma-Lease a Bike’s lead sports director, had seen enough to offer him a two-year contract. “He contacted me, my numbers were pretty good, he was quite enthusiastic, so was I, and the deal was pretty quickly sealed,” Lemmen summarises.

If that’s a whirlwind life change in such a short space of time, then just as dizzying has been how quickly he has adapted to WorldTour life, riding to fifth on the famous Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under. “I didn’t expect it,” he says, “because the plan was I’d be in a domestique role [for Milan Vader]. It really took me by surprise, and it needed some rethinking in my own head”

But a hotel discussion with the team’s DS, Addy Engels, helped him understand that he was there on merit. “I was really at peace with it,” he continues. “It was my own power output that got me there – it was not stolen, it was not luck. My teammates trusted me, we changed the plan [for stage six], and I changed it in my head as well. It sounds super easy like this – although it wasn’t easy – but that’s what I was telling myself, what I believed in, because it all felt so natural. I wasn’t thinking about being part of the best team in the world. This is the reality now. It doesn’t help me to praise myself. My task and responsibility is to ride my bike, and in the Tour Down Under, I needed to race like a mad man and cross the finish line.” And he did – finishing fourth on Mount Lofty.

That performance was not a fluke, either, for Lemmen subsequently finished 10th at the UAE Tour, confirming his enormous potential. “One of my goals this year is to set career goals,” he says, “because I don’t really know what a realistic ceiling is for me.” Despite fracturing his collarbone at the Volta a Catalunya in March, Lemmen has continued to perform way above expectations: he finished second in the mountains classification at the Tour de Romandie, and was only 12 seconds shy of winning Norway's national tour. At June’s Critérium du Dauphiné he was a crucial mountain domestique to Matteo Jorgensen who finished second, underlining his status as his team’s new-found gem.

“I am super proud of my journey,” he concludes. “It’s already super hard to become a pro when your whole life is about it, but my life has not been about that. I was slightly older, all odds were against me, and I still made it. I’m at the very beginning of my pro career but it already looks to be a successful step. I do realise it’s really special.”

Note: this article was originally published in April and was updated on June 26 to reflect Lemmen’s inclusion in the Tour de France.

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