Thomas De Gendt strolls into the bar at his team’s cheap and cheerful Paris-Nice hotel on the outskirts of Antibes like he hasn’t spent the whole day in the break, hoovering up King of the Mountains points. He wears no hint of fatigue, just top-to-toe team branding. Were it not for his outfit, a passing observer might struggle to tell which of us is deep into one of the most demanding stage races on the calendar, and which has merely schlepped a foolish three miles out of town from the train station.
Despite dominating the competition for the polka-dot jersey, it has been an uneventful day at the races for a rider who is, I submit, the peloton’s most individual competitor. I’ve come to this conclusion in the course of my preparation for our interview, which has largely consisted of researching riders, past and present, in an effort to find one with a similar palmarès.
There isn’t one. Sure, there are plenty of so-called “stage hunters” out there but, unlike De Gendt, they usually have just a couple of big wins to their name from an entire career’s worth of speculating.
When this is all put to him, De Gendt is prepared to admit that what he does is rare, but offers CCC Team racer Alessandro De Marchi, with whom he often finds himself in the break, as a comparable athlete. I make a partial concession, agreeing that the Italian is a reliable rouleur, with a decent record in stage races.
His rate of return, however, is nothing like that of the man in front of me. The Italian has three Vuelta stage wins to his name but the top results section of his Pro Cycling Stats page needs minor placings to fill it. For Thomas De Gendt, it’s WorldTour stage wins galore.
That collection includes victories in all three Grand Tours and all but a few of the most prestigious multi-day events. “The last two years it’s become a goal to win in stage races where I haven’t won yet,” he says. “I hadn’t won in the Vuelta so I tried to do the Vuelta to get the three Grand Tour wins. So that happened, and then I wanted to win in the Basque Country and Romandie, and I only got Romandie so it’s still Basque Country that I have to win.”
It sounds as if he’s playing palmarès Pokémon. Or he’s a pool player, picking his shot. To make things more interesting, and because he can. It also seems to make my point for me. How many riders have that much freedom to decide where, when and how they race?
By conventional measures, the biggest of Thomas De Gendt’s big wins is his 2016 Tour de France stage. He was, as usual, the last man standing from the breakaway. If you don’t remember it, how about if I tell you it was the day that Chris Froome went for a run?
While other, more dramatic events mean it might, understandably, not stand out strongly in the memory of the average cycling fan, I’m nonetheless surprised when he says it’s not the one that means the most to him, either.
The reason? He doesn’t see it as a true Ventoux victory. Strong winds at the summit had forced the organisers to bring the finish line ten kilometres down the fabled mountain to Chalet Reynard.
“We did the hardest part,” he says, “the first ten kilometres in the forest. It’s still a long climb but it wasn’t on the top, so I don’t have the picture of me with my hands [in the air] on the top. It’s still a nice victory but it’s not Mont Ventoux.”
Instead De Gendt’s proudest result is the one responsible for the only interruption to his remarkable record of stage wins: an (arguably accidental) third place overall at the 2012 Giro d’Italia. That result came about largely thanks to a victory atop the Stelvio, on the penultimate stage of that year’s race. It made him the first Belgian on the podium in a Grand Tour since Johan Bruyneel’s third place at the 1995 Vuelta. It’s just not what Belgians do.
Where Belgians excel, as everyone knows, is the Classics. De Gendt’s stage race success has drawn pressure from domestic media to try his hand at the home races but he’s really not interested: “When you do a Classic, you have one day to be good. If you are bad then you have lost that opportunity. If you have a bad day during a stage race there’s always tomorrow, or the day after.”
Besides, he says, in what will surely be viewed as blasphemy back home: “I don’t really care about Tour of Flanders.” He knows that his talent is getting into breaks that go the distance and he’s happy to keep doing that, thank you very much.
De Gendt denies that he has a sixth sense for stages that will lend themselves to a successful escape: “In the Tour there are always three or four stages that almost all the riders know are breakaway stages. No sprinter will survive and the GC guys won’t want to go for the victory.” Those are, as a rule, the ones with climbs close to the start.
Aside from his sheer strength on the bike the most interesting explanation, then, seems to be his ability to get a group to cooperate, and to motivate his fellow escapees.
“Until the final [kilometres] my main goal is to help the breakaway as far as possible,” the 32-year-old says. “I’m not really thinking about myself. The other riders are my best friends, and we have to work together. Once the final starts then I will look at what I have to do to try and win.”
How many times have we seen groups fall apart for a lack of cohesion, with one rider or another sitting on instead of taking their turn to pull? That almost never happens when De Gendt is present. He commands such respect from his peers that the way he describes it, his role sounds close to that of the break’s road captain.
That idea seems to appeal to him: “A lot of guys, once I’m in the breakaway with them, they’ll come and ask me, ‘What is the plan? what are we going to do?’ I don’t have to say anything. I don’t have to force them into a tactic.”
One advantageous attribute in his possession relates to a “fact” that I cannot confirm, but which feels right: that De Gendt spends more time on our screens during races than any other rider. For if he’s not out of sight of the peloton, he’s locked, limpet-like, to its front. It’s a vital role that he plays on sprint stages, holding the break on a long leash, before gradually reeling it in for the catch and handing over to the Lotto-Soudal sprint train.
It makes those days when he’s off the front all the more impressive because he hasn’t been hiding in the pack, saving his legs. He responds with a shrug when I point this out: “I don’t like to waste races.”
This dual role has given him a rare insight into how the bunch “thinks”, and means he’s able to direct the break accordingly. From the comfort of the couch it’s easy to assume that the breakaway is working furiously all day. First to eke out a lead, then to maintain it. If the plucky escapees get caught, it’s because they ran out of legs, right? Not always so. Or at least not when De Gendt is present.
“It’s all a game,” he says. “I try to adjust the speed of the breakaway to when I think the chase will start, or the speed of the chase will go up.”
“You don’t have to push hard [early on] because the bunch doesn’t want to catch you anyway,” he says. That’s when his advice to his colleagues is to “save a bit of strength, eat, drink, do your turns.”
Later on it becomes about tactics and trickery. “I think sometimes the bunch doesn’t expect us to go that hard on a climb. Or they start to chase and they expect the gap to come down. Suddenly after the climb they see that the gap has gone up by one minute. Then they start to panic, and a lot of guys start chasing harder and they get into the red zone. So on the next climb they get dropped.”
There are also a few points when the break can take “free seconds” – the feed zone and at the top of climbs “because the bunch will go harder uphill but ease off at the top.”
Sounds like fun, I say.
“It’s fun if it all works out,” he replies.
And for Thomas De Gendt, much more than for most, it does. He thinks it’s simple, but if it was simple, anyone could do it. They can’t.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 19.4